Conversations before and after worship services provide building blocks for church family relationships. Whether it’s exchanging a smile and warm greeting or asking for an update on a health struggle, checking on a friend whose spouse is deployed or meeting a new face for the first time—the opportunities for connection are endless!
You probably have your own examples of building relationships in the nooks and crannies of your time at church each week. But here’s a question to consider: Do your weekly efforts to foster community at church include the youth in your congregation?
Perhaps you instinctively assume the youth pastor or Sunday school teacher engages youth more effectively than you would. Maybe you think youth don’t want to talk to adults anyway. Whatever the reasons, too often, in my experience, relational intentionality doesn’t extend to the youth in our churches. Here are two reasons that engaging youth is important and two practical tips for doing so.
Reasons to Engage
1. It’s our duty as Christians.
Jesus summarized our primary duties into two well-known commands: love God and love people. As we read the Gospels, we see that when Jesus talked about loving others, he emphasized loving the least of these. Love all people but specifically those who are marginalized or don’t have as much to give you in return. Moreover, in Matthew 19, Jesus gave particular attention to children, opening his arms wide to draw them near and rebuking the disciples for shooing them away.
Too often, relational intentionality doesn’t extend to the youth in our churches.
As followers of Jesus, we imitate him by loving the young people in our churches. The more we learn about what they enjoy, fear, and experience, the more opportunities we have to encourage, pray, and rejoice. Getting to know children and teens is often a lot of work with little relational return, but we walk in obedience to God’s commands as we seek to selflessly know and love the young people around us.
2. It’s our delight as church members.
If you’re a member of a local church, you’ve most likely covenanted with a group of people to be a spiritual family, which includes coming alongside parents as they raise their children in the Lord. My church’s covenant states, “We will endeavor to lead those under our care in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as well as to seek the salvation of our family and friends.”
We shouldn’t assume the Sunday school teacher or youth pastor alone holds responsibility for teaching, getting to know, and investing in the youth. Whether you remain part of a congregation for months or decades, you have the opportunity to play a vital role in the lives of the young people as they grow physically and, Lord-willing, spiritually.
A host of research studies have noted the benefits of nonparental adults in the lives of children and teens. Think of the adults who had a significant influence on your life growing up. Whether they were teachers, pastors, coaches, or extended family members, these people took the time to get to know you and point out your potential and gifts.
I work as a counselor for teens, and I regularly tell parents that I’m not saying anything magical, I’m just a different voice encouraging and saying the same things they’ve said numerous times to their kids. There’s nothing more spectacular than witnessing a life transformed by the power of the gospel, and as an adult in the church, you’re uniquely situated to play an active role in this process for young people in your congregation.
1. Get to know youth with the long game in mind.
Start with learning the names and ages of the young people in your congregation. Notice youth who are alone and say hello, perhaps expressing delight merely in the opportunity to meet them.
Expect it to be clumsy, and don’t give up if the first interaction seems forced. Young people will rarely interact with developed social skills. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for most social interaction, isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s. My 4-year-old daughter looks forward to her playgroup more than Christmas, and yet when she greets her friends at the door she’s often hiding behind my leg, not even cracking a smile. Parents have shared similar stories with me regarding their teens meeting with me for discipleship and counseling.
Patiently pursue youth with the long game in mind. Lord willing, you have years to watch the young people around you grow, so work on slowly gaining their trust over time regardless of the perceived results from a single conversation.
2. Make youth feel valued as image-bearers.
Young people have a sixth sense for spotting genuineness and care. Seek to communicate excitement simply for who they are: image-bearers created in the likeness of God. The youth in your congregation represent the next generation of Christ followers who will proclaim the glorious message of the gospel throughout the world.
As an adult church member, you have been given the humbling stewardship of shaping how youth view the body of Christ.
As an adult church member, you have been given the humbling stewardship of shaping how youth view the body of Christ. Be slow to correct or comment on misbehavior and quick to go on a grace hunt in the lives of young people. Ask open-ended questions that begin with, “Tell me about . . .” or “What’s your favorite thing about . . . ?” Discover what excites them and how God has gifted them. As you grow in getting to know the youth, let them be the experts and ask for their knowledge on everything from Pokemon to bracelet making to video games to TikTok.
And don’t just engage with kids who appear interested in spiritual matters, but also with ones who seem to wish they were anywhere but church. Move toward young people, remembering the unique opportunity you have as a nonparent adult, seeking to leave a wonderful aroma of the church stamped on their hearts and minds.
Just Do It
As you consider engaging youth in your church, remember the phrase Nike popularized years ago: “Just do it.” Be aware of the youth around you and seek to grow in cultivating skills of engagement. Don’t overthink or overtry. Go up to a group of young people and ask how their weeks have been, not being offended if they look at you quizzically. Smile and tell the little girl sitting patiently while her mom talks that you’re so encouraged by her self-control. Notice the boy sitting alone without anyone to talk to and ask him what he’s looking forward to in the coming week.
As counselor and author Julie Lowe writes, “Working with young people may appear to be an innately God-given gift, but it is really a fostered expertise and aptitude that grows when we commit ourselves to knowing and loving this community well.” Don’t assume other people have it covered. Move toward youth in your church and pray that the Holy Spirit will use your care to soften hearts, speak truth, and maybe even help lead someone to understand the gospel for the first time.