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Resource Center

Opportunities to Reach Unchurched Teens

Jan 5, 2017 9:00:00 AM

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Three opportunities presented themselves to me in a relatively short timeframe.

  • An international mission trip that connected with unchurch youth
  • The decline in youth group participation
  • A youth event open to our community

“Someone” was tapping me on my shoulder to share this:
 Pew Research Center Findings

Current situation

There are many studies on adults, young and old, and their religious affiliations. The one above shows the increase in movement to current religions identifications as atheist, agnostic or nothing. If you carry the adult statistics forward to future generations, what is to be expected? One would have to deduce that if parents do not know Jesus, their children will find it difficult or near impossible to do so.

Let’s jump across the pond

I came across an international mission trip for my high school daughter. The group, among many similar groups, bills themselves as a movement among the youth of Central and Eastern Europe that finds its home in the local church and transforms society. This part of Europe had not been able to practice their religious beliefs for decades, so there is an entire generation or more of unchurch/atheists. Through their English camps, kids from U.S. go to these European countries to teach English to their peers. The camps are supported by local churches. So, when the kids from the U.S. leave to go home, seeds have been planted with the local kids which the local churches will now watch over and nurture under the care of the Holy Spirit.

Now jump back over the pond

I have seen the elimination of a congregation’s middle school group and the temporary hold of the high school youth group meetings. As parents, we know that we can’t provide for religious education alone and this situation really saddens me. I want youth to know that Jesus loves them and is there for them; that he died on the cross for them. An important point, I believe, is that my congregation is not an exception.

Why the decrease in youth group participation?

Middle school

Youth groups are traditionally based upon the youth of the congregational members which may or may not have a school. If there is a school, the school attendance is relatively small when compared to area public schools.

Also, middle schoolers are cliquey, to put it mildly. They travel in small, closed packs. So with a small class, if you don’t fit into the small group, you are easily on the “outs”. There is not enough mass to find someone like you. This may not be the right or Christian thing to do, and should not be acceptable behavior, but it is a reality.

Now move the clicks to youth groups. Kids don’t want to go to places without friends. If you don’t fit into a clique, you probably will not go.  If the “leader” of your clique isn’t going, the followers won’t go either.

High school

These kids are way overbooked. I know.

And to add to this, they still do travel in packs. If friends are not going to an event, they are not likely to go. They do not travel alone. And it feeds upon itself. “No one goes anymore” is a common excuse that is heard. And, you still have those that do not have the time to go.

The “bring a friend” to your intimate congregational youth group meeting at your church is probably not on the top 10 list of teen things to do for a number of reasons.

And down and down it goes. 

Fast forward opportunities

This trend in youth groups is probably happening across congregations. There is just not enough critical mass to keep the congregational youth groups going (as far as the kids are concerned). That is not to say we quit youth ministry.

Opportunities do exist to grow youth ministry if we think outside the box. 

What if there were regional youth groups that would meet monthly, or on some regular basis, as a large group in the format of an event; speakers, bands, sessions, sports activities, etc.? What if it was billed as a “safe” youth activity for area youth to attend? Think of this event as communicating to the youth in their “youth” language similar to communicating to others in their own ethnic languages. There would be enough mass so that kids would want to attend, invite friends, and be able to fit in. A current example is a local church that is pulling together a black light dodgeball event for the teens in the community. Keep in mind that congregations could still have their small intimate youth meetings.

Now – even better - what if it was open to the public? What if kids from non-churched families were invited to attend? Similar to engaging with the youth in Eastern Europe, what about engaging with non-churched youth in local neighborhoods?

What if kids brought friends from school because this was a fun thing to do and these friends were not churched? What if kids ended up wanting to go to a church sponsored activity? What if kids who never attended church, then ended up going to the intimate congregational meetings? What if we were purposeful in working to provide an opportunity for the Holy Spirit? What if…

While I’m certain there are thriving congregational youth groups, the question still exists as to how you are reaching the unchurched youth in your area. The generation of unchurched youth are not often talked about. They are more often talked around. And, after all, congregation youth groups are not just for the congregation members. More important than church members, they should exist for the unchurched youth. 

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Topics: Outreach

Ann Ciaccio

Written by Ann Ciaccio

Ann Ciaccio is the Communications Assistant for the LCMS Northern Illinois District. She graduated from Northern Illinois University, where she studied Marketing and is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia, Illinois. Ann enjoys the challenge of using her marketing skills as a tool to help carry out the mission and ministry of the Northern Illinois District. She is married and has two daughters, a junior in high school and a freshman in college. Her motto: “dark chocolate works.”