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Using Teenagers in Children's Ministry

Jennifer Root Wilger

Beyond their ability to double as playground equipment, a familiar teenage face can ease separation anxiety for young children...

When you think of teenagers in your church, what comes to mind: a. rebellious, pizza-gobbling, soft-drink-slurping rabble-rousers, b. older kids who've (thankfully) outgrown your ministry and are now the youth minister's responsibility, or c. mature young adults who have a unique opportunity to minister to your kids?

Believe it or not, teenagers have a lot to offer your kids, your ministry, and even your church. Here's how veteran children's workers have included teenagers successfully in their ministries.

Teens Train Too

For 13 years, Sue Lennartson provided an intensive all-summer-long daily children's program-with the help of 50 or 60 teenagers at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.

"We couldn't have done the program without them," says Lennartson, who is now a children's ministry consultant. "We hired many as part-time staff while they were still in high school, and they returned later as college interns." According to Lennartson, training is a key component for a successful ministry with teenagers. Over the years, she developed a training program dubbed "20/20 Vision." The program, designed to help teenagers see clearly into ministry, helps teenagers develop a repertoire of 20 activities they can pull out at a moment's notice. In the 20/20 Vision program, each teenager is prepared to lead five songs, games, crafts, and devotions.

Bob Shaw, a church school director at the First Congregational Church in Greeley, Colorado, trains the 25 teenagers who volunteer in his children's ministry.

"If the teens are doing any teaching, they participate in ongoing teacher training alongside adult teachers," explains Shaw. Shaw conducts a couple of two-hour training sessions each August. In addition, teenagers attend monthly teacher-enrichment meetings that focus on theme-related topics. This year's topic is "Recognizing and Helping Hurting Children."

Great Expectations

Requiring accountability is another key factor for success. Carolyn Reed, a children's pastor at First Baptist Church in Oxnard, California, requires her teen workers to provide references and to complete an application with standard volunteer screening questions. They also provide a statement describing their Christian faith, including important faith lessons they've learned recently. Reed consults with her church's youth ministry staff before accepting applications.

If accepted, these teenagers commit to a one-year rotation of one month on, two months off. During their months off, they're expected to participate in church services or youth activities.

"We have a regular list of what's expected," says Reed. "Teens are required to call if they'll be gone. They have to help clean up and check with the teacher before leaving for the day."

Some adult teachers even enlist teenagers to help with weekly lesson preparation. Reed says these teachers become mentors who positively impact teens' faith development.

Mary Ann Bethea, a children's ministries coordinator at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, has seen her teenagers rise beyond her expectations. "It's given me a new perspective on teenagers," says Bethea. "Before, teenagers really weren't my thing."

Bethea used her church's youth group to staff a vacation Bible school outreach to inner city kids last summer. It went so well that next year she plans to invite inner city teenagers to join her church's teenagers for training.

What's The Catch?

"Teenagers are living, walking jungle gyms," Lennartson says. Beyond their ability to double as playground equipment, a familiar teenage face can ease separation anxiety for young children. Teenagers can also aid in classroom management by providing important one-on-one attention for distractible children. And since teenagers can still remember what it was like to be kids, they may be able to relate better to what kids are going through.

Teenagers can do a lot, but don't expect them to take over and run all your programs. Remember, teenagers are young adults, but they're also grown-up kids. From time to time, they may need to be reminded why they're there. "Help teenagers learn how to participate appropriately," says Lennartson. "Make regular evaluation a part of your program, but remember to evaluate kindly-these aren't just teenagers, they're your partners in ministry."

Getting Started

If your church isn't already using teenagers in your ministry, start by identifying ministry tasks teenagers can do. Tasks can range from walking preschoolers to the drinking fountain to assisting adult leaders with lesson activities-or even teaching entire lessons. Lennartson suggests three levels of teen ministry involvement. When you're ready to plug teenagers in, discuss your plans with your church's youth director. Then announce ministry opportunities to the youth group.

Teenagers who are actively involved in church youth activities are likely candidates for ministry. "We typically use our confirmation class for this ministry," says Shaw. "But we don't leave out teens who may be uninvolved in the formal youth ministry program. Ministering to kids is a great way to involve teens who might otherwise find themselves on the periphery of the life of the church." Once you've got kids involved, remember: training, trust, and accountability will help ensure a faith-growing experience for you, your teen partners in ministry, and the kids in your care. "Young children respond very well to teenagers," Shaw says. "I don't know all the reasons why, but I'm just glad for the blessing."

Are My Teenagers Level 3 Leaders?

Plug teenagers into one of the following levels of involvement.

  • Level 1-- Helper-Helpers work behind the scenes doing tasks such as registration or snack preparation. They may pass out supplies, help kids complete craft projects, or participate in activities alongside the kids.
  • Level 2 -- Teaching Assistant-These kids are beginning to get involved in actual teaching. They may lead one or more simple activities, such as games. Or they may act out a Bible story. Teaching assistants always have an adult teacher present, but when they lead an activity, they do it on their own.
  • Level 3 -- Teacher-Teenagers who serve as teachers often have their own classes. They're responsible for planning lessons and directing kids in activities. They may have adult or other teen helpers, and they're often paired with adult teachers or staff members for mentoring and accountability. Fill teen teacher positions with senior high youth.

Jennifer Root Wilger is a free-lance author in Lafayette, Colorado. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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