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Better Together

Sue Kahawaii

Dear Youth Minister:

One of the biggest challenges we face-you and I who labor together, yet not quite in the same vineyard-is to recognize that we're a team. There tends to be a separatist mentality in the minds of children's and youth ministers that it's "us against them" or "us separate from them." Often we opt to pit ourselves in opposition or division rather than to work hand-in-hand, side-by-side. We have separate teams, separate meetings, separate offices, separate budgets, separate functions, separate strategies, separate priorities.
But if our ultimate goal is really the same goal-seeing as many people as possible have a lifelong friendship with Jesus-then we need to recognize that a separatist mentality isn't going to help us achieve that goal.
And since we're getting real, I'll confess something: As I think about handing off the kids I've loved and worked with all this time to you, I want to know that they'll be welcomed, loved, and nurtured. I want to know that all I've put into them in children's ministry won't be swept aside-or worse, lost-if the transition doesn't go smoothly. I want to know that my kids will continue on in their faith, that their parents will stay connected to your ministry, and that in a few years, I'll see them graduate from high school, still connected to church.
So what do you say? Let's link arms, make a plan, and ensure that all kids-and their families-make a seamless transition from children's to youth ministry…
starting today.

Sincerely,
The Children's Minister

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I've been there-watching two ministries that in reality are very closely linked yet are functioning from completely unaligned, dissimilar standpoints. Yet statistics show that this separatist mentality is a self-defeating strategy at best; at worst, it may sabotage both ministries. Consider these statistics from the Barna Group:

  • 43% of Christians make a commitment to Jesus before age 13.
  • 21%make a faith commitment to Jesus between ages 13 and 18.

Noted researcher George Barna says, "Families, churches, and para-church ministries must recognize that the primary window of opportunity for effectively reaching people is during the preteen years…Since I became a Christian two decades ago, I've always accepted the dominant notion: The most important ministry is that conducted among adults. But the overwhelming evidence we have seen of the huge impact in the lives of kids and relatively limited changes in the lives of adults has completely revolutionized my view of ministry."

Think about this: Every child who makes a faith commitment in your children's ministry just grew the youth group by one more-if we do our jobs right and keep that child involved, engaged, and successfully linking into the youth ministry.
Barna notes that 80 percent of future leaders within the church are those who were highly involved in a children's ministry program throughout their childhood. In other words, we're going to someday pass the baton to the kids in our ministries today.

Clearly, parents are key in determining a child's faith future. If parents aren't highly supportive of a youth ministry, and if parents don't see their child's faith growth as high priority, the church has an incredible challenge ahead of it.

This fact underlines the tremendous need for children's ministry and youth ministry to link efforts to ensure kids become passionate in their relationship with Jesus at an early age and that youth ministry fans the flames of that passion.

Linking Children's to Youth
Various surveys reveal that teenagers say they don't go to a youth group based on music or games or even fun events. Barna sums this up by saying they choose a church group based on "a compelling experience that's made complete and safe by the presence of people they know and trust, and from whom they're willing to learn and take their cues…Music and other ambient factors may attract them once or twice, but those elements won't keep them coming back for more. There has to be sufficient substance, quality, hope, and genuine mutual concern and acceptance for them to return."

In short, teenagers are looking for a ministry that provides relationship, not activity.
Evidence indicates that children's and youth ministries are so critical to the future of the church that it's paramount for leaders in both areas to recognize that they aren't separate endeavors-they're permanently linked. Each needs to be interested in, involved in, and highly supportive of the other.

If our goal is to help kids form a relationship with Jesus, we have a vested interest in handing them off into a youth department that's thriving, meeting kids' needs, and continuing the process we began. If we do our job but fail to assist and undergird the youth team, then we've let down the kids we lead. Children's ministers-of all people in the church-are the ones who can offer the most intense support to a youth ministry. And that internal support overflows, resulting in kids who see that you're excited about the youth program and parents who are more likely to see the value, support it, and even get involved.

Practical Ways to Link
Once you're set on forming a strong link between the children's and youth ministries, get busy! And do it now-don't wait until the week before your preteens will transition to the youth team. Building your link to the youth team starts today-for the sake of your ministries and for the kids who'll be moving up next. Consider sharing this article with your youth leader, then working together to create a plan to move forward.

Link 1: Get involved in each other's worlds. Make time to visit the other ministry area in more than a cursory way. Tour it, then spend time there. Observe a few sessions. Hang out with the kids from that ministry, especially if you were their children's minister. Be present in their world on both sides of the link.

Link 2: Attend each other's events. Whether it's a parent meeting, camp, or other special event, show up. You have the same goal, you're on the same team, and it's important to show visible support. Also, you'll likely learn a lot about how your ministries are strong and different and how you can complement each other better.

Link 3:
Have at least one meeting per year to strategize together. Use this time to compare notes and answer the big questions, such as:

  • How can we work together to reach more kids and youth?
  • How can we help kids transitioning to youth ministry not get lost in the shuffle?
  • How can we get youth involved in children's ministry so children have role models and mentors already in place that they can relate to?
  • How can children's ministry communicate better with parents about what will happen as their kids move into the youth area?
  • What specifically can both teams do to welcome and connect kids and their parents with the youth program?
  • How can we work together to better communicate and support each other?

Link 4: Communicate at every opportunity. Find a way to let each other know regularly about upcoming events and services, challenges, and other issues you're dealing with. Communicate and celebrate each other's accomplishments within your volunteer teams. Also talk about the youth team with the kids in your ministry. Mention the exciting things the youth group is doing and promote the opportunities your kids will soon experience.

Link 5: Involve parents in the youth ministry early. The largest church attendance drop among families comes when kids hit their teenage years. There are a number of factors responsible. Here are some of the most significant:

  • Kids' interests in other activities are expanding and deepening at this age. If kids aren't anchored in the church, there's a greater chance they'll become anchored in something else.
  • Teenagers are notoriously self-conscious and sensitive. If they have an impression that they're outsiders, they're far less likely to invest in attending and will lobby parents to do something-anything-else.
  • Parents' identity is almost entirely wrapped up in their young children. But with the onset of teenage years and more emphasis on friend activities, parents' role naturally evolves, and their connection to the church can fade if they're not involved in meaningful ways.

The All-Important Parent Link
That last point leads us to one of the most important points of your linking strategy, because you're not only connecting your ministries, you're re-linking parents from your kids' ministry to youth ministry at the same time you're transitioning their preteens.

Clearly, one strategy to ensure that families don't drop out of church when their children become teenagers is to keep parents involved in ministry activities. It's common and normal (in some cases, required) for parents to be involved in children's classes. But it's not normal at all to find a parent involved in youth ministry. Parents are unclear about their role in this ministry. They don't know where they fit in or whether they're wanted or needed. It's relatively easy for a parent to sign on to teach 3-year-olds, but most parents are ill-equipped to teach teenagers. And although the role they play in their kids' lives will change-it shouldn't be diminished.

Typically, youth groups are known to project an air of "parent-repellent"-an image of not wanting adults to be involved. And if we examine the reasons behind that attitude truthfully, it could be because we're doing things we don't necessarily want parents and adults to scrutinize too closely. They might notice that games aren't safe and squelch our fun. They might dampen the party atmosphere. We assume that teenagers don't want their parents around them.
But statistics tell a very different story.

Kids-teenagers-want a church where they have meaningful relationships, and they want adults they can trust to model behaviors they can adopt. The youth minister can't be everything to all people, and it's important for parents to step in and serve, perhaps strengthening their relationships along the way.

Even kids who are highly involved and connected in children's ministry often feel lost when it's time to move up. The majority of them dread the move. They may like the idea of increased independence, but they also worry about leaving their safe and secure world where they know everyone, they know what "church" looks and feels like, and they know what's expected of them. That trepidation makes the entry into youth a natural and obvious opening for parents to increase their involvement.

• • •
The bottom line: We need each other. Together children's and youth ministries can accomplish much more than we can separately. It takes more meetings, effort, cooperation, collaboration, and communication. And it takes more work. But the payoff to both ministries, and most importantly, to the families they serve, is truly priceless. cm

Sue Kahawaii is pastor of Champions Centre Church in Tacoma, Washington.

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