Better Together

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Dear Youth Minister:

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One of the biggest challenges we face-you and I who labor
together, yet not quite in the same vineyard-is to recognize that
we’re a team. There tends to be a separatist mentality in the minds
of children’s and youth ministers that it’s “us against them” or
“us separate from them.” Often we opt to pit ourselves in
opposition or division rather than to work hand-in-hand,
side-by-side. We have separate teams, separate meetings, separate
offices, separate budgets, separate functions, separate strategies,
separate priorities.
But if our ultimate goal is really the same goal-seeing as many
people as possible have a lifelong friendship with Jesus-then we
need to recognize that a separatist mentality isn’t going to help
us achieve that goal.
And since we’re getting real, I’ll confess something: As I think
about handing off the kids I’ve loved and worked with all this time
to you, I want to know that they’ll be welcomed, loved, and
nurtured. I want to know that all I’ve put into them in children’s
ministry won’t be swept aside-or worse, lost-if the transition
doesn’t go smoothly. I want to know that my kids will continue on
in their faith, that their parents will stay connected to your
ministry, and that in a few years, I’ll see them graduate from high
school, still connected to church.
So what do you say? Let’s link arms, make a plan, and ensure that
all kids-and their families-make a seamless transition from
children’s to youth ministry…
starting today.

Sincerely,
The Children’s Minister

———————

I’ve been there-watching two ministries that in reality are very
closely linked yet are functioning from completely unaligned,
dissimilar standpoints. Yet statistics show that this separatist
mentality is a self-defeating strategy at best; at worst, it may
sabotage both ministries. Consider these statistics from the Barna
Group:

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  • 43% of Christians make a commitment to Jesus before age
    13.
  • 21%make a faith commitment to Jesus between ages 13 and
    18.

Noted researcher George Barna says, “Families, churches, and
para-church ministries must recognize that the primary window of
opportunity for effectively reaching people is during the preteen
years…Since I became a Christian two decades ago, I’ve always
accepted the dominant notion: The most important ministry is that
conducted among adults. But the overwhelming evidence we have seen
of the huge impact in the lives of kids and relatively limited
changes in the lives of adults has completely revolutionized my
view of ministry.”

Think about this: Every child who makes a faith commitment in your
children’s ministry just grew the youth group by one more-if we do
our jobs right and keep that child involved, engaged, and
successfully linking into the youth ministry.
Barna notes that 80 percent of future leaders within the church
are those who were highly involved in a children’s ministry program
throughout their childhood. In other words, we’re going to someday
pass the baton to the kids in our ministries today.

Clearly, parents are key in determining a child’s faith future. If
parents aren’t highly supportive of a youth ministry, and if
parents don’t see their child’s faith growth as high priority, the
church has an incredible challenge ahead of it.

This fact underlines the tremendous need for children’s ministry
and youth ministry to link efforts to ensure kids become passionate
in their relationship with Jesus at an early age and that youth
ministry fans the flames of that passion.

Linking Children’s to Youth
Various surveys reveal that teenagers say they don’t go
to a youth group based on music or games or even fun events. Barna
sums this up by saying they choose a church group based on “a
compelling experience that’s made complete and safe by the presence
of people they know and trust, and from whom they’re willing to
learn and take their cues…Music and other ambient factors may
attract them once or twice, but those elements won’t keep them
coming back for more. There has to be sufficient substance,
quality, hope, and genuine mutual concern and acceptance for them
to return.”

In short, teenagers are looking for a ministry that provides
relationship, not activity.
Evidence indicates that children’s and youth ministries are so
critical to the future of the church that it’s paramount for
leaders in both areas to recognize that they aren’t separate
endeavors-they’re permanently linked. Each needs to be interested
in, involved in, and highly supportive of the other.

If our goal is to help kids form a relationship with Jesus, we
have a vested interest in handing them off into a youth department
that’s thriving, meeting kids’ needs, and continuing the process we
began. If we do our job but fail to assist and undergird the youth
team, then we’ve let down the kids we lead. Children’s ministers-of
all people in the church-are the ones who can offer the most
intense support to a youth ministry. And that internal support
overflows, resulting in kids who see that you’re excited about the
youth program and parents who are more likely to see the value,
support it, and even get involved.

Practical Ways to Link
Once you’re set on forming a strong link between the
children’s and youth ministries, get busy! And do it now-don’t wait
until the week before your preteens will transition to the youth
team. Building your link to the youth team starts today-for the
sake of your ministries and for the kids who’ll be moving up next.
Consider sharing this article with your youth leader, then working
together to create a plan to move forward.

Link 1: Get involved in each other’s worlds.
Make time to visit the other ministry area in more than a cursory
way. Tour it, then spend time there. Observe a few sessions. Hang
out with the kids from that ministry, especially if you were their
children’s minister. Be present in their world on both sides of the
link.

Link 2: Attend each other’s events. Whether
it’s a parent meeting, camp, or other special event, show up. You
have the same goal, you’re on the same team, and it’s important to
show visible support. Also, you’ll likely learn a lot about how
your ministries are strong and different and how you can complement
each other better.

Link 3:
Have at least one meeting per year to strategize
together. Use this time to compare notes and answer the big
questions, such as:

  • How can we work together to reach more kids and youth?
  • How can we help kids transitioning to youth ministry not get
    lost in the shuffle?
  • How can we get youth involved in children’s ministry so
    children have role models and mentors already in place that they
    can relate to?
  • How can children’s ministry communicate better with parents
    about what will happen as their kids move into the youth area?
  • What specifically can both teams do to welcome and connect kids
    and their parents with the youth program?
  • How can we work together to better communicate and support each
    other?

Link 4: Communicate at every opportunity. Find
a way to let each other know regularly about upcoming events and
services, challenges, and other issues you’re dealing with.
Communicate and celebrate each other’s accomplishments within your
volunteer teams. Also talk about the youth team with the kids in
your ministry. Mention the exciting things the youth group is doing
and promote the opportunities your kids will soon experience.

Link 5: Involve parents in the youth ministry
early. The largest church attendance drop among families comes when
kids hit their teenage years. There are a number of factors
responsible. Here are some of the most significant:

  • Kids’ interests in other activities are expanding and deepening
    at this age. If kids aren’t anchored in the church, there’s a
    greater chance they’ll become anchored in something else.
  • Teenagers are notoriously self-conscious and sensitive. If they
    have an impression that they’re outsiders, they’re far less likely
    to invest in attending and will lobby parents to do
    something-anything-else.
  • Parents’ identity is almost entirely wrapped up in their young
    children. But with the onset of teenage years and more emphasis on
    friend activities, parents’ role naturally evolves, and their
    connection to the church can fade if they’re not involved in
    meaningful ways.

The All-Important Parent Link
That last point leads us to one of the most important
points of your linking strategy, because you’re not only connecting
your ministries, you’re re-linking parents from your kids’ ministry
to youth ministry at the same time you’re transitioning their
preteens.

Clearly, one strategy to ensure that families don’t drop out of
church when their children become teenagers is to keep parents
involved in ministry activities. It’s common and normal (in some
cases, required) for parents to be involved in children’s classes.
But it’s not normal at all to find a parent involved in youth
ministry. Parents are unclear about their role in this ministry.
They don’t know where they fit in or whether they’re wanted or
needed. It’s relatively easy for a parent to sign on to teach
3-year-olds, but most parents are ill-equipped to teach teenagers.
And although the role they play in their kids’ lives will change-it
shouldn’t be diminished.

Typically, youth groups are known to project an air of
“parent-repellent”-an image of not wanting adults to be involved.
And if we examine the reasons behind that attitude truthfully, it
could be because we’re doing things we don’t necessarily want
parents and adults to scrutinize too closely. They might notice
that games aren’t safe and squelch our fun. They might dampen the
party atmosphere. We assume that teenagers don’t want their parents
around them.
But statistics tell a very different story.

Kids-teenagers-want a church where they have meaningful
relationships, and they want adults they can trust to model
behaviors they can adopt. The youth minister can’t be everything to
all people, and it’s important for parents to step in and serve,
perhaps strengthening their relationships along the way.

Even kids who are highly involved and connected in children’s
ministry often feel lost when it’s time to move up. The majority of
them dread the move. They may like the idea of increased
independence, but they also worry about leaving their safe and
secure world where they know everyone, they know what “church”
looks and feels like, and they know what’s expected of them. That
trepidation makes the entry into youth a natural and obvious
opening for parents to increase their involvement.

• • •
The bottom line: We need each other. Together children’s and youth
ministries can accomplish much more than we can separately. It
takes more meetings, effort, cooperation, collaboration, and
communication. And it takes more work. But the payoff to both
ministries, and most importantly, to the families they serve, is
truly priceless. cm

Sue Kahawaii is pastor of Champions Centre Church in Tacoma,
Washington.

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