I used to take it personally when new students would come to youth group yet never return once they found the mega-church youth group with loud music, video games, and massive screens. Now, a decade later, I have learned to let it go. While at the store, I ran into a new student who came to our youth group for the first time a few weeks ago. I said hi to her and mentioned how we missed having her back. She responded, “Um I haven’t been at Vineyard because I go to a different church and their youth group is SO AWESOME! They have a youth group just for 6th grade! And they have huge speakers and they blast music with their own band just for youth group! They even have disco lights, and a massive video screen with video games, and really comfy furniture, and a pinball machine, a vending machine, and…”
Her response made me smile mostly because I am aware how I have matured since the beginning of my youth ministry years. I assured her that I was glad she found a church she liked and encouraged her to keep going and plug in. This brief conversation with her got me thinking though. I fully recognize that God works through these super cool mega churches with all their fancy things. God is still present, and teens still find the gospel at churches like this. Praise the Lord!
However, I do feel that there is an intimacy at our youth group that is special and unique. We don’t have super fancy things compared to the mega-churches or even programming that is perfectly structured. Actually, I am a paid youth curriculum writer in addition to be a part-time Youth Pastor, and we still don’t follow a specific curriculum plan. This is because our youth group time is only an hour. Our youth group is basically more of a Sunday school model where teens come and meet in the youth room after they worship in the sanctuary with their families. Since our time is so short, I realized the best use of that time is to give teens a space to encounter Jesus for themselves.
We try this in a variety of ways since everyone experiences God differently. Some Sundays we may do a short bible lesson with a discussion. Other times we set up prayer stations for teens to do individually. Around exam time, we practice meditative prayers to help teens give their stress to God. We have done guided imaginative prayer experiences as well. If there is a big event in the news, we try to allow space for teens to debrief tragedies or tough topics. Sometimes we simply share how our weeks went and what we all need prayer for. We have even just left time and space for teens to ask leaders any faith questions they are currently struggling with.
One Sunday we went to the park across the street and experienced God through nature. Some Sundays we go outside, play a game, and let students sit in the grass and talk about their lives. Once in a while, we lie on the floor and listen to worship music. Every now and then, we leave art stations around the room so teens can express themselves to God through art. We also bring teens along to help serve our homeless ministry so they can experience Jesus through serving. If all else fails, we at least end youth group every Sunday with communion after reading a prayer all together that a student wrote. We do this to help teens encounter God through their sense and by ritual or tradition. We present a variety of ways to create space for teens to be with Jesus.
Every Sunday I pray that our teens encounter Jesus learning to recognize and trust his voice. Teaching the Bible and theology is important. But helping teens encounter Jesus for themselves is the most important value we can gift our teens with. Our youth group may not have all the fancy things or perfectly structured theological lessons, but we hope teens have a personal encounter with Jesus leaving them wanting more Jesus in their lives.
A book that has inspired this line of thinking for me is Presence Centered Youth Ministry by Mike King. I also encourage reading the book, Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas to help discover unique ways for teens to encounter God.