I grew up in a country church of 200 individuals. It was far from perfect and had its faults, as all churches do. But from the ages of 5 through 18, I thought it was perfect.
Each Sunday morning I was greeted by multiple youth and adults who not only knew my name but also remembered to ask how my latest endeavors as captain of the dance team were going. I served in the church nursery. I handed out bulletins. I worshipped with my whole heart. I passed notes back and forth with my two best friends in the back row during sermons. On Sunday nights I would head back to church to lead worship for weekly youth nights, do some kind of activity with shaving cream, and meet with my small group to pray and study the Bible.
I loved Jesus. He helped me through depression. He helped me survive in a family that was almost torn apart by mental illness, and he was there for me when I felt alone in the lunchroom at school. But when I look back and think back to my early experiences of knowing Jesus, it is my hometown church and the people in it that first come to mind. They were the reason I stuck with Jesus and gave him a chance.
When I was 14 years old, Sherry, the lead pastor’s wife, approached my mom one Sunday morning with a proposal. Sherry had been watching me and said she’d seen leadership qualities in me. Our church’s kids’ camp was quickly approaching, and Sherry was in need of an activities director. There were several different names on the list, but she chose mine. She asked if my mom would consider helping me lead the activities with the stipulation that I would be in charge.
Now I pastor kids for a living. I often find myself praying a prayer that I know echoes in the hearts of children and youth pastors everywhere: that as every young person grows from child to youth to adult, they remain in relationship with Jesus.
At a conference a few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “Sticky Faith”: a faith that starts when our youth are young and sticks with them throughout college and the rest of their lives. Fuller Institute studied over 500 youths after graduating from high school in hopes of finding the silver bullet, narrowing down what factors or experiences were most instrumental in helping youth sustain their faith post-high school.
One of the biggest findings was this: A leading factor influencing students who continued in their faith was attending church worship experiences and participating in other intergenerational experiences at church.
So often, most of our budgets, time, and energy go into creating great youth nights, or VBS, or purchasing the best curriculum on the market. But I wonder, are we missing a critical component in our ministry to youth and kids? Don’t get me wrong – these other programs are all great things. In no way do I advocate canceling these aspects of ministry. My own pastoral team still plans these activities in our church. But Sticky Faith has also made our church think through how we can provide faith-building experiences for our kids and youth that are also interactions with the whole church body.
My first week of work at my church, I was leading a group of 5th-grade girls in a back classroom when the main service’s worship set started. One of the 5th graders, whose parents were very prominent leaders in our church at the time, looked at me and asked, “What’s that noise that happens every week at this time?” When I told her it was the adults worshipping Jesus, she looked at me in surprise and said, “Oh, they make a lot of noise.” She had been in attendance at our church for three years and had not once experienced worship with her parents and the rest of her church community!
I realized then that we had made a mistake. In our efforts to provide the kids the best programming, we had not offered them a rich and true experience of Jesus and our church community.
After this realization, we began bringing our middle school youth in for worship every Sunday, and our grade schoolers also join the adults in the front row once a month. (Yes, we have had many conversations about reserving seats!) We have found this to be one of the most valuable teaching times for our kids and youth, and it is largely where they experience Jesus. Our kids and youth have had the opportunity to have adults pray over them, to see their parents worshipping, and to participate in services.
One of my favorite examples of youth participation happened just recently. A 14-year-old was able to share a prophetic word with the entire church during ministry time, when our lead pastor felt a nudge from God that she had something to share. We are also vigilant about including youth in our special services (such as Christmas and Easter), assigning them meaningful roles that help build their leadership and bless the church as a whole.
This fall, we will be sending off some of our first graduating seniors to college and the workplace. In an effort to support them, adults in our church will have the opportunity to sign up to send each one a card once a month throughout the first few years of their college or work experiences. This way they can be supported and reminded that there are adults who know them and are thinking of and praying for them. This will be a new initiative for our church. And, because we have only a few seniors, it will be easier for us to pull off than maybe it would be for a church with a large group of teenagers. We are excited to offer this as a new way for more people to serve and honor our kids and youth.
Our church is young, and so much of our work with Sticky Faith is just beginning. We want the best small groups, teaching, rooms, retreats, and curriculum for our young people that we can find. But as we continue to grow in our Sticky Faith as a church, we also want to include our youth and kids in every aspect. To me, Sticky Faith gives our young Jesus believers an equal opportunity to have a seat at the table and a voice in what the Holy Spirit is doing in our church, in our community, and in our families.