Recently, a random conversation with a couple of staff guys caused me to think back to my days as a teenager and my high school youth group. I really participated in two youth groups. My first youth group was at the church where I grew up in, in Tulsa, OK, and the second youth group was at the church I attended for a little over a year when we moved to Houston, TX. Both were great experiences for me. But in reflecting back on those days, I couldn’t help but think of how much things have changed.
I never went to youth group with anyone who went to the same high school as me. In Tulsa, we drove all the way across town to go to church because of a long family connection. In Houston, I didn’t live in the same school district where the church was located, so none of my “friends” went to my youth group. Not only that, but I didn’t really share anything in common with any of the kids in the youth groups. When I was in high school, I played football and basketball. My first summer job was working at an indoor tennis facility. I was pretty heavily involved in all things sports (that was before that kind of involvement kept you out of church). The rest of the kids in both of my youth groups were pretty much the original “Geek Squad.” There were no athletes in my youth groups and, honestly, no one that would have been in the “popular” crowd (whatever that means) in their school. I never had a young or “cool” Youth Minister. In my Tulsa church, our Youth Minister had kids older than me, and in my Houston church there was no Youth Minister. There were no special facilities, no big budgets…nothing.
Now, that doesn’t sound very appealing, but the truth is, my time and commitment with both of those youth groups were some of the most enriching experiences of my life…certainly my spiritual life. To this day I continue to have a connection to kids I went to youth group with, as well as some of the sponsors who gave their time to teach and to lead. But it wasn’t just good for me. Looking back through the lenses of time and maturity, I can see how my participation was beneficial for others. I’m hesitant to write that because I don’t want it to sound too self-important, but I know from personal conversations with others that God was able to use me as a witness and example and leader to others.
What is so sad and disheartening for me today is the reality that many teenagers don’t even participate in church youth group (we call it Student Ministry today). And if they do, it’s often a classic “consumer-driven” choice or it’s not even a church at all. I’ve heard all the reasons why over and over again (friends – youth ministers/leaders – time – schedule – popular kids – etc.). Here’s my response – observation – question – whatever you want to call it. And I’m not writing this for the purpose of offending or accusing, I’m just expressing my thoughts and experiences (isn’t that what a blog is for?) and I’m asking you to take a minute to think about what I’m writing. We live in a day and age where everything is measured by how much we get out of it. That’s the reality of the world. Shouldn’t the church and our participation…our commitment to it be different? Shouldn’t the church, which includes the youth group (student ministry), be measured by how much of ourselves we put into it for God? Isn’t this something that we should be passing on to our children?
Over the past thirty-plus years, I’ve seen youth programs that were driven by big personalities and by big events. They’re impressive…there’s no question about that. But I’ve also seen that when that particular personality is gone or the big events end, there’s a noticeable drop-off in participation. When Jesus fed hungry people, he had thousands of them pursuing him. A little later when he began to tell them what it cost to be his disciple, many of them said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). Then the inevitable happened. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
I didn’t go to the youth group with the dynamic youth minister, or with my friends, or even with the kids that I wished were my friends. Sometimes we rode in an old broken down church bus to a “rustic” church camp or a pizza parlor (which was a big night out in the 1970s). I saw “Jaws” with Ginger Braun and Deena McCollum, girls I knew from youth group…girls I would never have been friends with in any other setting…girls who became great friends. I played church league basketball with guys who were terrible basketball players (that meant I got to take a lot of shots). We had Bible studies, swim parties, youth services, and on and on. And as lame as those things may sound, I know my life wouldn’t have been the same without them.