This is post five in a series of reflections on the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies To Help Young People Discover And Love Your Church. For an introduction to the series please read part one and continue reading the reflections in part two and three and four.
I’m not sure what comes to mind when you think about church but I suspect one of the presumptions you would make is that it’s a warm place to meet other people. I don’t mean it in the sense of the ducted-heating being set at the right temperature. I mean it in the sense of people being welcoming, open, hospitable and the like.
If a church is too hot then it is hard to find your place and penetrate the cliques, groups and family members within the church. If the church is too cold then it can be jarring and uncomfortable. But a church which is open to newcomers and gives a warm welcome, well, that might be a church worth heading along to, possibily even belonging to.
In its research Growing Young found a number of words like welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable, and caring to be commonplace in churches that retained young people. A warm church is a church that keeps young people.
One of the chief ways churches were warm is through something pretty obvious.
Yet, Growing Young also points out that these relationships are built naturally and in a way that provides long-term support. In other words, in the messiness of life there is the need for other messy people to walk with young people and keep walking with them.
As the authors put it:
“The warmth young people seek isn’t usually clean and tidy. That’s just fine, because family isn’t neat. It’s messy. And messy is a good word to describe what young people want from a congregation. They desire not only to share their own messiness but also to walk alongside the authentic messiness of others.”
Due to this need churches are moving away from the programmatic and systematic structure of congregational life to help foster relationships. With intentionality the structure of the church changes in order to give people more time to socialise and meet together during the week rather than be locked up in church programs. This provides opportunity for people to have relationships with those outside of anything formal or structured.
As one church pictured in the book commented:
“We see our job as creating the environment where relationships can happen. We have programs, yes, but more importantly, we build the platforms where people connect. Our strategy has been to create an environment that screams, ‘Stay here!’ after worship. Every week we have food, things for kids to do (all within eyesight of parents), and a football or baseball game on a big screen nearby. We see the time after the service as just as important as the service itself.”
With this chapter focussing on helping people belong to their local church how do you incorporate it into youth and young adult ministry?
- What does it look like for young people to be connected within a local church?
- How do young people gain a sense of belonging within the whole congregation?
- How do young people get to know others in an authentic way?
In many ways it comes down to getting back to the basics.
Welcome well, connect people with others, and have something, in hardcopy if possible, that explains who you are as a church or youth ministry.
At youth group I’ve always been one to make sure everyone gets a good welcome when they arrive. Be outside and give a clear ‘hello’ to everyone that walks past, meet their parents, and link them to another leader. Find others in the group to connect with the newbie and give out a welcome pack at the end to say thanks for coming. Some of these things are currently in place and in other areas there is always need for improvement.
In small groups it is ideal to have food. Have dinner, which allows for socialising and belonging, before getting underway with the Bible study and prayer time. That’s a pretty simple and straightforward idea but it will still take 18 months before the the group really starts humming along, and that’s meeting every week.
And so at church it’s again important to connect people with others, same age-group or not. Growing Young suggests a mixture of age groups is probably ideal. I theoretically agree with this and know that it is a growing area. It’s one thing to link a young adult to a group of other young adults, it’s another to link them to others out of their generational bracket.
So, is there a downside to all this intentional warmth?
Well, yes, one.
It’s a slow work. It’s a work that requires time, and quite often a very long time, in order for people to feel connected within the church and with others who are there.
In the end the Growing Young team suggest looking at it like a family. With a family there is messy stuff going on but there is also much to appreciate and enjoy.
Different and unique people bring different and unique personalities to the wider church community but through it all God continues to do His work in life and faith.
“Rather than lean into the allure of viewing the worship service like a trip to the theater, imagine it as a gathering in the family room. Whether you meet in a sanctuary filled with pews, a contemporary auditorium, a high school gymnasium, or an actual house, envision your worship experience like a family room.”