Helpful Things: More Than Just Pizza or Lock-Ins
By Crysten Sanchez
Building or sustaining a youth program. Seems like a huge job, right? You have to consider all of the plans that go into each event and make your schedule open to actually be at all of those events, not to mention get to know and invest yourself in the lives of multiple different youth. Big job--but oh, so rewarding. And when you start to break down some of the important things to know about it all, it seems just a little more manageable.
Navigating Today's Demographics
The first thing to consider is the generation of kids that you'll be working with. All of your youth will now fall solidly within Generation Z. The kids in this generation were born around 2000 and after. One of the biggest touchstones of this generation is their comfort with technology and all it can do. It's commonplace for a 10-year-old to be walking around with an iPhone that is just a generation or two behind, knowing how to use every aspect of it confidently.
And with that technology comes information. They have access to any information they could possibly want (and perhaps don't need): the answer to any question, the ability to view all of your friends' and frenemies' social media presences, and so much more. It can all be overwhelming. They are so oversaturated with information that they simply know more than any previous generation did at their age. But how do they handle it? After all, a 13-year-old now is developmentally the same as a 13-year-old from 30 years ago. How can we guide them through this?
Another thing to note is that this generation does not have the same brand loyalty as generations before them. This generation, always being able to access something different and better via technology, has no qualms about moving on to something that may fit their desires a little more. How does that play out in church? How do we encourage them to realize that church isn't just another brand, but rather the place that God has promised to deliver life and salvation, through the person and work of Jesus Christ? You can't just move on from that.
So What's the Point?
Good question. Why do it? Why create programming directed towards a subset of the congregation instead of just letting them fall in line with the rest of the church? Well, the point, as always, is Jesus. The Gospel. Doing everything we can to assure them that they have rest in their Baptism. Their Baptism, which placed the Name of the Triune God on them. That Name saves them from sin, death. and the devil. So how do we do that?
Managing the Logistics
Something to think about when beginning to put a program in place is how you'll be treating the youth you're working with. I borrow the following principle from a previous Higher Things president, Rev. Klemet Preus. He used to say that Americans today worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. So let's put those pieces back where they belong. When it comes time to worship with your youth, do so as Lutherans. Worship with historic Christianity unashamedly. Don't think that you need to make worship into something bigger and better, but rather allow it to be as wonderful as it can be on its own: the deliverance of life and salvation through the Sacraments in which God has promised these things. I don't think that needs to be made any more wonderful!
As for work, when it's time to work, work hard. And here I'm specifically speaking about the Bible study for youth group. Challenge them. These kids are taking AP courses. They're in college classes as high schoolers. They're smart. If we approach them with watered-down theology because we don't think they can handle the tough stuff, the only thing we'll be doing is causing them to lose respect for us. And also, we aren't preparing them for the battle that rages against them amongst their peers and teachers. So raise the bar. If you do, they'll jump up to meet it. If you lower that bar, they'll rest comfortably where you put it.
And when it comes time to play, play with them and let that be sufficient. Go bowling without making it an object lesson about how the pins are sins, and the bowling ball is the Holy Spirit, and we just need to knock down our sins with that assistance. How about we just bowl and have some fun! Play spoons or laser tag. Genuinely enjoy being in their company. Because that's another thing. They'll be able to see through you if you don't actually want to be there with them. Enjoy your time and let it show!
As you implement an actual program, remember that consistency is important. For example, always have two youth nights and an event in a month and follow a similar schedule throughout the year. Something consistent will become part of the rhythm of the church's life together, as well as the families' lives. It may take a couple of years (yes, years!) for this to embed itself into the church's life, but once it does it becomes sustainable in a delightful, fulfilling way.
Another thing to consider is safety. The safety of the youth as well as protecting the adult volunteers and workers is something that must be considered in today's culture and climate. This also protects the church. If your church doesn't already have something in place, I highly recommend putting together a child protection and safety policy. Think about health forms, adult-to-child ratios, medication logs, procedures for incidents and accidents, etc. We know this is a huge undertaking, so please feel free to email me at email@example.com and I'll provide you with forms and policy examples that we have at Higher Things.
Back to the Point
And while we strive to build a sustainable, safe, fun program, we can't forget Jesus. We've been entrusted with these youth at this crucial, impressionable time in their lives. We make the most of that opportunity when we direct them back to the Divine Service, give them a firm foundation in their knowledge of Scripture and the confessions, and ultimately, send them on their way knowing where, and in Whom, their salvation lies. This needs to be peppered into everything that we do. And pray. Pray that God will work through the sinful means of the person putting that program together to strengthen the faith of the ones entrusted to you.
This article was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Higher Things Magazine; however, the principles are general and can be applied and modified for nearly any youth group situation, even with COVID restrictions.
Crysten Sanchez has served as the event executive for Higher Things since 2019, but has been blessed to work for HT in one way or another since 2010. While also working as a Youth Coordinator through those years, Crysten solidified her opinion on youth: they aren't given as much credit as they deserve, and we "grown ups" can learn just as much from them as they can learn from us. That really forms her mindset while planning, refining, and nit-picking Higher Things events into perfection in order to serve those youth through life-giving worship, mind-growing teaching, and relationship-building fun.
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