By Steven Tighe
I’ve been working with teenagers in churches for a while—long enough to have seen multiple generations of parents earnestly trying to raise their children to follow Jesus, and long enough to have identified some common mistakes.
I often speak to adults about those mistakes. Most frequently talking about the importance of the Christian youth group for healthy adolescent faith, and I almost can’t count the number of parents who have heard me speak and come up to explain why their kids don’t attend. They have good reasons: “Sports are so important and the team practices are on youth group night,” or “Kids these days have so much homework, and academics have to take precedence over fun,” or “We don’t want to force religion down our teenagers’ throats, we want our children to choose church freely, the way we did,” or “My kids tried youth group and they said they already knew the whole talk and that the other kids are cliquey.” For years I would nod sympathetically and talk about how it was good that they were at least taking their children to church, because that’s important too.
That conversation has a second part, that usually happened two or five or ten years later, when those same parents came in real anguish to ask if I had any advice to help them with their children. Reporting that their kids were no longer attending church, or they were taking drugs, or sleeping with a girlfriend, or moving in with a boyfriend. I’ve lately come to the conclusion that I haven’t done anyone any favors by having tried to be nice in that first conversation.
This article is what I probably should have been saying to those parents all along.
The stark truth is that the number of teenagers who have a real and growing faith and aren’t attending a Christian youth group is vanishingly small. There are some, but to put it bluntly, if you think your teenager is one of these you are very probably wrong.
How can this be? How is it that we, as parents, can be so sure about our teenager’s faith, only to have it seemingly disappear when they get older? I think it starts because when they’re young, our children are so open to our faith. They love having the Bible read to them. They like going to Sunday School. They know all the stories. They seem so entirely open to OUR opinions about Jesus that it’s almost impossible to believe they could change their minds.
But around the time of puberty, things do start to change. One of the biggest changes is that Mom and Dad no longer have such unchallenged influence. Other factors start to matter just as much or more. Those other factors are big reasons that Christian youth groups are so essential to teenage faith.
The three crucial adolescent faith factors
The first factor is the growing influence that other adults (and older children) start to have in their lives: teachers, youth leaders, coaches and others. Teenagers start to seek the attention and approval of adults who are not their parents! If we’re lucky, some of these influential adults are Christians who care about teenagers and attend our churches.
The second group that starts to carry greater influence in the lives of adolescents is their peers. Adolescents are desperately concerned with the opinions of the adolescents around them.
As an illustration, I recently talked to the parent of a teenager in 7th grade. She was well loved and well parented, but her group of school friends had turned on her, blocked her from their social media, and she was distraught, talking seriously about wanting to kill herself. The influence and the affection of her loving parents was dwarfed by the influence of this small group of clueless middle school girls. This isn’t unusual. To an adolescent, the influence of peers is enormous. It’s not surprising that peers, who carry so much influence in other areas, would also have a big influence on a teenager’s faith.
The third critical relationship for healthy adolescent faith is the relationship with God Himself. Kids are highly relational, and those spiritual experiences where they “meet” God, whether it’s because they heard his voice, felt his presence or “just knew” that He loved them, are a major building block in most young people’s Christianity. For the most part, these spiritual experiences occur on retreats, Christian camps, conferences, and mission trips that are part of American youth group life.
It’s these three factors that make youth groups crucial to adolescent faith. For the vast majority of teenagers with a growing Christian faith, their mentors, Christian peers, and powerful spiritual experiences all exist in the context of their Christian youth group.
Sunday church, and Sunday school are important, but not sufficient for the faith of our adolescents, especially when one considers the faith challenges that come from movies, music, and social media. Two hours on Sunday is not enough to equip a teenager to properly interpret the lies and misconceptions of forty hours a week of media!
What about those of us in churches that don’t have youth groups?
There are solid options: First, it doesn’t have to be a youth group at your church. It makes sense to see if any of your teenager’s friends have youth groups at other churches with whom they can attend. Second, the youth group doesn’t even have to be a church youth group, there are some excellent school based Christian youth groups sponsored by organizations such as Young Life and Youth For Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and others. Check with your child’s school to see if any of those ministries are available.
One final suggestion, if you have your children attending another organization’s youth group it’s important to have them connected with non-parental adult mentors from your church. Find someone from your church willing to meet with your child once a week to read the Bible together. This is the heart of the Young Anglican’s “Engage” program (younganglicans.com). Talk to your priest or bishop about having the Engage Training in your church or diocese.
Steven Tighe is a member of the Board of Directors for the Young Anglicans Project. He serves as Director of La Frontera Youth Ministry Education. For questions or more information, feel free to contact Steven Tighe at firstname.lastname@example.org.