Challenge: To Get Your Youth to Gain From Sunday Church

Originally published October 2007.

You are a great teacher.  You are a great Bible teacher.  But unfortunately, your senior pastor is not.  At least not enough to keep the teens’ attention.  Between worship songs that are older and unfamiliar and/or your pastor’s style of preaching and/or other reasons which you know, your youth may not get much out of church.  Since your role as the youth worker is to bridge the parents to the youth and to bridge the youth to the church family, here are some ways to help your youth engage during “adult church.”


  1. Don’t call it “adult church.” Don’t even intimate that it is “adult church.”  This service is for the entire church family so be sure that every part of your language and body language communicates that point.
  2. Never criticize. Never criticize your pastor in front of the youth or the parents.  You two are serving together and should have the entire church family in mind as you serve.  Even if some of your youth are caring enough to confront you about why they don’t like Sunday church services, don’t offer up excuses in your pastor’s defense.  Give him/her your full support no matter what.  Then schedule a meeting with your pastor to discuss your teens’ concerns.
  3. Creative teaching methods. Ask your pastor to add some creative teaching methods to the sermon.  Some pastors may be stuck in their ways (a stereotype that is often not as true as the stereotype) and may not respond to a direct request.   But did it hurt to ask? However some pastors, because they do love their teens, may respond openly.  If he/she seems open to some creativity, help by providing resources.  Give him/her websites, files, books, etc., of ideas he/she can possibly use. If your pastor does add something creative or something to get beyond the speaching-to-a-passive audience method, give him/her proper props.  Such good feedback will almost guarantee another try at it.
  4. Standing ovation. When your pastor is finished with a particularly clever and/or interactive sermon, as a youth group stand and give him/her a standing ovation at the end of the service.  This is something you will have to talk about, create a signal sign for, and practice prior to actually doing it to pull off the surprise effect.   However such positive encouragement will certainly encourage your pastor to try such a sermon-type again.  And if there would be anyone in the congregation upset about a creative element in the sermon, they couldn’t be upset anymore if the youth gave a standing ovation.  Further, can you imagine the response any visitors would have?  They would obviously think that if this is a church where teens give standing ovations for the teaching of the Bible, this must be an innovative church worth joining.
  5. You use creative teaching methods. Not only during youth group but on those special occasions you get to preach to the church family.  Incorporate what you do in your youth group to the church family.  As you are preparing for this certain Sunday, you will gain an understanding as to why pastors fall back on the speaching method of teaching so readily.  With speaching the outcome of the message is more controlled and more predictable.  When you add creative teaching methods, you are adding unknown elements and you may not be able to work the sermon back to your closing challenge which holds the purpose for why you are teaching.  Push through the uncertainty and teach creatively.  See what sort of feedback you get and subtly spread that feedback back to your pastor.
  6. Encourage your youth to e-mail sermon illustrations to your senior pastor. Of course, let the pastor in on this idea.  Your youth are already watching stories, viewing YouTube, maybe even writing poems or stories.  Encourage them to pass these on to your senior pastor.  Give them his/her e-mail and turn them loose.  The first time your senior pastor uses one of their ideas, everyone else will get on board so encourage your senior pastor to use one idea as soon as possible.  After a time, your senior pastor can put together an e-mail list of resource help for future sermons which your teens can then find specific illustrations for him/her.
  7. Personal audio/visual assistant. Some pastors are not as technologically savvy as you so adding such creative teaching elements may be intimidating just because he/she wouldn’t know how to do it.  Offer up a youth or two (who are reliable) to serve as Sunday morning audio/visual assistants.  Arrange for them to meet with the pastor, hear what he/she wants done and set them loose to arrange it for Sunday morning so your pastor has no worries about this part of the message.  After several sermons the pastor and his/her assistants could be a fine-tuned preaching machine.  And these privileged youth will have a closer relationship with the pastor which will spill over to the rest of the youth.
  8. Senior pastor as regular youth teacher. At least quarterly invite your pastor to teach at a youth meeting.  The reasons why are many.  The pastor will get to know the youth a bit.  The youth will see firsthand that the pastor is behind the youth ministry and does love them.  And the youth will get used to his speaking style which will help during church family services.
  9. Take notes. Not write notes.  This is an obvious idea and often recommended so think of it more this way.  Teaching your youth how to take notes and how to make an outline from the sermon (3-point sermons play perfectly into this) will be teaching them a skill they can use in school and which they will definitely need for college.
  10. Secret words. Ask your pastor to plant 5 funny or bizarre words into the message and keep those words a secret between the pastor and the teens.  Have your pastor give these words to you to pass on to the teens so you can explain the secret.  Another twist: ask your teens to give 5 words to the pastor which he/she needs to incorporate into the sermon.  Again, this is a secret between the pastor and the teens.  While the teens are listening for their secret words, they may also catch another truth or two out of the sermon.  And more importantly, they will know that the pastor is interested in them.
  11. The next question. Some preachers are preparing fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines which are included in the bulletin to help everyone with the message.  This is a good start.  I know pastors think they are being so trendy by doing this but, as teens know too well, life is not fill-in-the-blank.  As well as filling in the blank, encourage your teens to write down what the next question should be under a fill-in-the-blank point.  Maybe it’s a question they can answer for themselves.  Or maybe it is a question that he/she doesn’t know the answer for.  Encourage each teen to e-mail you their “next questions” from the sermon and promise you will e-mail back an answer.  Not only will this involve your teen in the sermon, you will get a chance to answer real questions from them.
  12. Teach your traditions. Some of the disconnect may be from the younger generation not “getting” the traditions of your church.  I picked this idea up from the back page article from the Youth Worker Journal (September/October 2007) called “Stirring It Up.”  Tom Bergler opined about the adolescence of the church (the one including adults) saying, “Spend some of it trying to get young people excited about the rich heritage and traditions of your church.  Don’t be so eager to appeal to students in their language that you forget to teach them the foreign language of the biblical faith.” Brilliant.  Some of us have been so long in our church traditions ourselves that we have simply forgotten that our youth feel disconnected from them.  Can you imagine the creative teachings you can come up with to bring the awe and respect back to such traditions?
  13. Vocabulary lesson mixed with Balderdash. During a sermon a new word or several new words could be used.  Have the teens write down the new word and try to guess at its meaning.  This may distract him/her from the sermon a bit but he/she will still be learning.  Encourage the teen when he/she gets home to look up the new word and find out what it actually means.  Then ask him/her to apply it to his/her regular vocabulary for the week.
  14. Learn through art. For your creative types, provide sketch paper and charcoal and ask them to sketch what art comes to mind from the sermon.  Keep the supplies in a plastic container so they are always available in the sanctuary (but hide them throughout the week so others won’t play with the supplies).  Encourage the teens that their art can be realistic or abstract.  Encourage them to let the Holy Spirit use the pastor’s words and their vision to create something.  Designate a bulletin board for these pieces of art noting the name of the sermon and the date so that everyone in the church family is blessed by the insight from your talented youth.
  15. Set up questions in the bulletin. Make the adults in your church family talk to the youth.  This “little” contact with others in church will greatly increase your teens’ experience in church.  Although you love your teens and know how unscary they are, other adults don’t always see that.  They are often intimidated by teens, especially when they sit in packs.  Ease this fear or help it to go away completely.  One idea is to put in one simple and non-threatening question for the adults to ask the youth weekly in the bulletin.  Examples of such questions are: What was something joyful that happened this week?  What are you most looking forward to this week in school?  These require more than a yes and no answer and they often require a sentence or two.  That small start of conversation will grow week to week.  I’d say “money back guaranteed” on this one but Pair of Cleats already isn’t costing you money.

In closing, the Lifeway Research study on why young adults leave the church has been getting lots of press, blog notice, brainstorming conversations, etc.  Lots of great ideas will come from this research.  With that background, I would like to close with this quote from yet another Youth Worker Journal (May/June 2007) (disclaimer: I do not work for them!) by Gene C. Roehlkepartain of Search Institute, “All young people feel that they need more and better relationships with adults.  (But) it’s striking how few young people have good, sustained relationships adults with in congregations.” 

And I will add this quote from Chap Clark referencing his study of midadolescence and the abandonment that they feel, “Lastly, the most effective thing we can do to foster spiritual maturity in our children is to integrate them into adult relationships in the body of Christ. Because midadolescence developed due to our collective neglect and abandonment, we must undo its effects by bringing adults and kids together. Young people should be allowed and encouraged to participate in adult Sunday school and Bible study classes, go on men’s and women’s retreats, and serve on ministry and service teams with adults. The more your child feels that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that they are included in not only a family but the family of God, the more they will allow themselves to be drawn into a level of faith that will strengthen and lead them for the rest of their lives.” (Center for Youth and Family Ministry)

The Lifeway Research study is highlighting that there are things the Church can do to stop young adults from leaving. All of these fifteen ideas are attempts to do just that.

Your Wild Frontier challenge is to create a youth ministry program that is more than a youth ministry.  What needs to be added, dropped, or changed so that your youth can come near and direct with the entire church family?  Can your Sunday mornings (which is the largest church family time) change so that your youth are sitting at the “big table” and not at the “children’s table?”  Have a sit down with your pastor and see what the two of you can come up with.  (Remember: Any other ideas you come up with we beg you to submit at our sister site, under Church Family Ideas.)