by A Youth Minister

“Hate” is a strong word. I try not to use it very much, but there are times when it is the only word that conveys the way I feel about something. I hate sin and suffering and death and I hate it when people don’t use their turn signals and I HATE, with the intensity of a thousand burning suns, black licorice. All joking aside, I’m not sure that I hate Youth Sunday. In my context, with my students, it simply has not worked. It has caused more harm than good and we can do other things that are better suited at meeting the goals that Youth Sunday tries to meet.

During my time in seminary one of the most valuable things that has stuck with me is a process of evaluation. All that needs be done is to answer four questions in excruciating detail and honesty. First, we ask what’s happening. How’s it happening, who’s making it happen, where’s it happening, to whom is it happening, etc.? Second, we ask why it’s happening. Do these reasons give merit to the program or event? Are we doing it because we’ve always done it? Do we have ulterior motives for doing it? Third, we ask what should be happening. We reflect on the first two questions, our context, and our theological convictions to come up with what we believe to be best for the situation, for the targeted group, for everyone involved. Finally, we ask how to bridge the gap between what is currently happening and what should be happening. How do we get from this great idea that was poorly implemented (or this highly attended event that has little to no spiritual value) to what we believe will be the best for everyone involved?

I took this evaluation process to the Youth Sunday program at my church: What’s happening? Youth Sunday took place one Sunday per year in the fall during both services. All youth were encouraged, but not required to be involved. Their responsibility was to help plan and lead all aspects of worship for that day. We started planning and practicing several months in advance during Sunday night youth group and the Saturday prior to the service. The worship service typically contained several songs, a skit, scripture reading, and a small handful of speaking parts as well as announcements, prayer requests, and all other typical parts of our worship service.

During preparation and planning I made several observations. The youth were always excited about the planning and coming up with ideas, which started in late July, but were rarely excited to practice or perform. Several times youth would show up who had not attended for a period of time and because neither they nor their parents showed any interest in Youth Sunday, they were left out in many ways. Also, friends rarely felt comfortable during the three month preparation. No substantial curriculum was being taught; only short devotionals were taking place. Many of my students are heavily involved in extracurricular activities in the fall and often had to miss practices even on Sunday nights. Some people–youth, parents, and volunteers alike–had difficulty sharing in some of the responsibilities and created a lot of drama.

That’s what was happening; now why was it happening? Youth Sunday was happening in part because I inherited it. It was a young tradition, but a tradition nonetheless and one that the congregation enjoyed. The families also enjoyed showing their youth off to the congregation. It’s understood that it is good for the youth to be involved in worship and to take responsibility for it. It is also understood that it’s important for the youth to be a part of the life of the church. My favorite reason is that other churches do it.

The reasoning for Youth Sunday is good, but does Youth Sunday best fulfill the goals implied by our reasoning? Is it the most life giving, transforming way to go about meeting our goals? In my context it is not. I believe that Youth Sunday hurts more than it helps.

The most damaging part of Youth Sunday is the message that it can send. What are we saying when we only give the youth in our churches the opportunity to lead worship once a year? What message are the youth getting when the influx of people only balance out normal attendance numbers? What are the youth learning in the midst of practicing for what seems like a pageant (pageant parents and all)? What does it say about the adult-youth relationship when they don’t or can’t lead worship together?

So, with all of this, what should we do? There is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer. Churches are as unique as the people of which they are made. There are some general leanings that we can take, however, toward youth and specifically how they are involved in and with our churches.

First, it’s important to get the youth involved. Think of the many responsibilities and programs that take place in our churches. Are there any that a middle school or high school student could not do? If so, then why? Is it a good reason? It’s important to understand that getting youth involved in the church will take extra work. Some cannot drive, others need extra supervision, and all of them are young and inexperienced, but none of those things should inhibit them from being active in God’s work of redemption both inside and outside our churches.

Second, we need to have a better understanding of who our youth are. Youth are not partial or probationary members of our churches. They do not receive a half-baptism to be completed when they turn 18 or reach the end of adolescence. They are full members and fully human and should be treated as such. The whole idea of adolescence has only been around for a little over 100 years. Before that there were children and adults. One became an adult through a rite of passage and was then expected to be a responsible, productive member of society. We tend to think that adolescents are not responsible and therefore give them fewer responsibilities; in turn, they never learn to be responsible. It’s a vicious cycle and one that we perpetuate unless we change our view of youth and of failure.

Third and finally, we need to take a different perspective on failure. Humanity is one giant failure. We were created perfect and then we sinned, BUT (and it’s a big but) God has redeemed every one of us and all of our failures. If our fear of failure overshadows God’s redemption, then there is a big problem. Youth are bound to fail (like the rest of us). Not because they’re broken or bad, but because they’re human and have little experience. Failure should be a learning tool (see Holy Bible: every single story) and should be surrounded by loving redemption.

I don’t hate Youth Sunday; I just don’t think it’s a fully developed idea. We do it for good reason, but I don’t think that it is the best we can do. In order to do what is best, we need to better understand our young people. We need to understand that they can and want to be involved, that they will fail and will need patient redemption, and that they are full members of God’s church and Christ’s body.