In July, I had the great privilege of joining our Senior High students and adults on their mission trip to Indianapolis, Indiana. As many know, I have lots of experience with children birth – sixth grade, but I have always been a little intimidated by them once they move on to junior high and high school. I have always continued to care about them and love watching them grow up and become cool young people, but I would often let my own insecurities get in the way. I was never the “cool kid” when I WAS a kid, and it’s ridiculous how some of those feelings have stayed with me almost 30 years after I graduated from high school. I don’t know much of their pop culture – I wasn’t really into the pop culture when I WAS a teen. Facebook was made for my demographic and I’m not on Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. Give me classic rock over “their” music any day. I’ve been on a number of junior high trips as a step in helping students transition from Confirmation to Junior High, but this was my first Senior High trip, and I was kind of nervous about it, despite having known many of these students most of their lives.
My nervousness disappeared the minute I arrived and people welcomed me, and even more so as we entered into worship led by these gifted young people. Serving alongside them as they brought humor and fun into hot, sweaty tasks that many adults would be whining about and seeing their never-ending energy as they played with young children and made them feel special was a joy. Watching them serving alongside and being in conversation with grown men in a residential recovery program, worshiping together as one community and washing one another’s feet was humbling and encouraging. But some of my favorite moments were in worship and small groups with them each evening. Hearing their highs and lows from the day, the impact these experiences had upon them, and where they met God each day reminded me yet again that they don’t need adults to ‘teach’ them. They simply need us to give them space to speak, a listening ear and willingness to grow alongside them. I grew that week because of them.
All of this came back to me as I recently read Sticky Faith by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark with the Fuller Youth Institute. They have done lots of research on young people with regards to their faith, noting that only 40-50% of those who graduate from youth programs continue to be connected with church as they move on to college or jobs. They spend time exploring what is “different” about those who seem to “stick with” their faith. Two of the pieces that really stuck with me are that those who continue to grow in their faith typically have multiple adults, who are not their parents, active in their lives and/or are a part of churches that value intergenerational interactions. The impact of adult involvement is not new research – we know that ANY child who has adults involved in his/her life is usually more successful in many ways.
We have seen this impact on our own children and students. Our highest and most consistently attended children’s class is the one that has Shepherds who have committed to be there almost every week of the school year and even move up with them each grade. I’m not sure how many times these two women have tracked a class from first – fifth grade and then gone back down to first grade for a new class, but I do know that those classes typically have the deepest connections to the church and each other as they grow older. We see this with our Confirmation Faith Partners, many of whom have continued their relationships beyond sixth grade. We see this with the relationships built between youth and the adults who are a part of their small groups on Sunday evenings. What I love is that these relationships are two-way. I would not hesitate to say that the faith of each of these adults has been impacted by these young people.
The authors of Sticky Faith suggest turning a typical ratio of 1 adult for every five youth to 5 adults for every 1 youth. Five adults who know a student’s name and checks in with them regularly. Five adults who celebrate with them during the highs of life and who would be available for a chat during any of the lows of life. While I think we do some of this intergenerational stuff much better than I have seen in other churches, I wonder what impact we might have on young people and the church if we took this research seriously and committed more fully to our young people.
I challenge each of us to examine where our lives intersect with a child or youth, or multiple children and youth. If you haven’t had a conversation with a young person in the last week, month or year, I pray you will do so. They need us in their lives – and we need THEM in OUR lives. I promise they are not nearly as intimidating as we often make them out to be!