Keeping our kids in church through the teen and twenty-something years requires many factors. Peer friendships, adult community, and relevance to our teen’s world being several pieces to the pie.
Finding an accepting environment is also critical in the process.
Shaunti Feldhaun’s research attempted to get into our teen’s head to understand them better. The information she gathered indicates that kids at this age are insecure and are fearful of rejection. They want people to accept them for who they are and to be seen as a significant person within the group. This is especially important as the child moves from junior high to high school. Typically the freshman year is where the big shift in acceptance is made. Still immature in their relationships, 14 year olds sometimes struggle with who they are because they are now at the bottom of the rung in age range with the shift in peers. It’s as if they are suddenly found swimming in a pit with bigger, stronger, faster, prettier 15-18 year olds.
The problem is that clicks can easily form in any youth group, especially in churches where kids have grown up together. New faces might not be readily accepted or worse, be totally ostracized or go unnoticed.
Kids can sometimes be harsh in their “who’s in – who’s out” mentality. While parents might not see it, kids typically identify rejection quickly. While it is easy to think that our kids are not trying to connect, it is important for parents to see what “truth” is for the teen and encourage ways to get involved.
Keep in mind that this acceptance needs to also come from the adult youth workers. I can’t say this strongly enough. As parents we want to think that youth workers or pastors will connect and treat all the kids the same. However, truth is that they are human just like us and some kids will naturally become favorites.
Every youth pastor and adult volunteer is serving in that capacity for a reason—and it may not necessarily be for the reason you want. For some it is ministry and they want to connect with your child and love them unconditionally. If that’s the case for your youth group, you’ve probably found the right church. Just know that for others it is a job, not necessarily a calling.
Volunteers are often there because their child is part of the group and they want to protect their child or be part of their child’s world or they’ve been coerced by someone to get involved even though their goal isn’t necessarily to love the kids where they are at. Maybe the adult leader is a big kid at heart and loves teenagers and enjoys the energy they breed, but doesn’t have the maturity to pour into your child in a healthy adult-like way.
Youth workers also have varying degrees of experience working with kids and parents. Knowing who these people really are and their true heart’s calling can have a huge impact if your teen starts complaining about attending.
This played out with a friend of mine whose daughter attended an out of town youth conference.
Running a little behind to get to the arena, my friend’s daughter Rachel (name changed) rushed out of the hotel room to catch up with the other girls. As luck would have it Rachel ran into one of the adult youth workers and was not only ordered on the spot to change her top but received a tongue lashing for breaking the rules for dress code.
Seems reasonable, right? Depending on the amount of tongue lashing?
Here’s the rest of the story.
It turns out that Rachel who was 14 was sharing a hotel room with three older girls. The four girls had gone shopping earlier in the day and one of them had suggested they buy matching tops to wear to the conference that night. Rachel had bravely spoken up and told the girls that the tops they had chosen didn’t meet dress code. However, the older girls told her that because it was so hot outside no one would question it. She gave in wanting to be accepted into the group.
Truth is that all the girls wore the same top that night. Only the 14 year old was reprimanded. When Rachel questioned why she was the only one made to change she was told “The others just didn’t get caught; besides you have more to show than the rest of the girls.”
When the mother heard what had been said to her daughter, she invited the youth worker to lunch to apologize for her daughter’s behavior and to also try to connect with this woman and understand what really happened. At lunch the youth worker responded with, “You know our job is to play traffic cop for these events. If we see them break the rule, we nail them.”
No compassion. No apology. No pulling all the girls together to talk about the reason behind the dress code and make a heart connection — just judgment and sentencing.
Let’s face it, mistakes happen, relationships need to be mended, and hopefully our teens can learn from those experiences. But sometimes when those difficult people in our teens’ lives are part of the church they can have a negative impact on our kid’s spiritual life.
When these things happen get involved. Once you’ve had opportunity to assess the situation, use it as a launching pad for a spiritual conversation with your teen. Talk about adults not always getting it right, forgiveness, and her mistakes in the situation. Then decide for yourself if judgment is a congregation mindset or just a problem for the adult involved.
If it is pervasive, find an environment where your child will be accepted and cherished. You’ll be glad you did.
“Let go…and let God”,