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Students in the American church are experiencing a loneliness epidemic known as systematic abandonment. So what are some responses when addressing abandonment?

2 Responses To Systematic Abandonment

Last week, Marko on the Slant33 blog asked the question of:

We have learned that teenagers live in a world isolated from adults, and unfortunately, most of our ministries perpetuate this.  How are you addressing this problem?

My thoughts:

Students in the American church are experiencing a loneliness epidemic known as systematic abandonment. So what are some responses when addressing abandonment?

In my youth ministry experience it has been my mission, joined with the Holy Spirit, to intentionally respond to this systematic abandonment issue. I have responded in two approaches: 1) Proactively assimilating students into the church body; and 2) Getting more adults in the lives of kids through the small group model.

Assimilation is the strategy to incorporate these abandoned adolescents into the church body. The goal of not only the youth ministry but also the church at large is to assimilate authentic disciples into full participation in the life of the community of faith and the church. We want our students by the time they graduate high school to be fully immersed, engaged, and playing an active role in the church family.
However, a youth worker who advocates for assimilation may experience some resistances from others (parents, church staff, and other church members). Why? Some parents don’t want their kids in “their” church service because it is “their” time with God. This is why the church pays a youth pastor, right?
The youth pastor’s job is to keep their kids busy while they attend church.If you advocate for assimilation, expect to spend many months and years convincing parents they are the primary spiritual leaders of their students and not solely the youth pastor. Another issue is that other adults (including church senior leadership) may not value and enjoy teenagers as part of their worship services. Some students may be distracting to others adults during Sunday morning worship. I have had elders and deacons tell me directly that they don’t want students in the service because the way they dress distracts them. Don’t let the resistance deter your assimilation strategies.

Bottom line: The sooner a youth ministry can assimilate students to the larger church body, the better off their faith will be. But expect both internal and external battles when advocating for student assimilation.

Small group is the strategic way to facilitate mentor relationships between students and non-parental committed adults. The key words that define mentor relationships are: accountability, safety, warmth, and friendship. The research behind Sticky Faith suggests that students need five adults cheering and supporting them through their adolescent development process. Thus, it is my belief that a small group ministry in a youth ministry can at least provide one or two adults who love, care for, and support a student.

My biggest regret in my youth ministry career was not placing a high value on small groups. I thought you had to have really mature students in order to do small groups, which actually the reverse is true.  I think small group leaders can come alongside students and help them integrate their lives with faith. Small groups should not have more than eight students per one adult. One adult can only handle the spiritual, mental, hormonal, and emotional levels of eight students. Any small group over eight students will not work as effectively because the small group leader cannot be attentive to the many spiritual and emotional needs of his or her students. The only difficulty of the small group model is recruiting quality and healthy leaders.

The bottom line is that getting more adults in the lives of students will produce a more sustainable youth ministry. The goal of the small group model is to make the small group leader the superhero, not the youth pastor.

The hardest part about implementing the assimilation strategy and the small group model is making the shift from working with students to adults. The youth pastor now becomes the one who equips and inspires adults to work with the next generation. Remember, it is more about mindset than programming. It is about convincing adults to have a caring and loving attitude toward adolescents in their church communities.

How is your youth ministry responding to the systematic abandonment issue?  

About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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One comment

  1. This year we began a “pilot” small group that Includes teens (6th-12th graders) with their parents as well as a couple of single adults. Parents who have never participated in any type of small group have been blessed by the intergenerational missional community. It is not another “church meeting” away from their children. Each family takes a week to bring the dinner. We eat together, discuss Sunday’s message, challenge one another to live this teaching out (and have accountability through families), and agree together on an ongoing mission outreach for the group.

    Several of the parents have shared how valuable the experience has been: parents and children hear each other talk about their faith struggles and victories, adults come to know the youth and encourage them, and the students get to know each other better as well. We served together at a soup kitchen and continue to reach out with our church to this homeless community.

    Ongoing step: encouraging the families to be reaching out to their neighbors and families with teens.

    Next step: cancel evening ministries for 8-weeks in Fall 2012 to host ALL intergenerational small groups for a season.

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