I'm in an online youth ministry class, and this week we got talking about how frustrating it can be when teens and their families consider other things more important than church and youth group involvement. It gave me a good excuse to put in writing some things i had been thinking for a while:
I agree that its a problem - but i wonder how much of it has to do with the way our ministries are structured. I see three things most extracurriculars have that most youth groups don't: accountability, goals, and rewards.
Most youth ministries will not penalize a student for missing a week or several weeks in a row. We're just glad to get them back when they do return. Most extracurriculars, on the other hand, have strict attendance policies. It doesn't surprise me that a teen would choose to go to football practice instead of youth group - the coach will be less forgiving than the youth pastor.
Many youth ministries aren't really working toward a goal with their students. Pastors may have goals - but what is the teen accomplishing by coming week after week? What difference does it make if they miss a week? Are we really preparing for any definite, visible challenge that we then can celebrate together when we achieve? Or do we just meet week after week with the vague goal of "growth"? Most extracurriculars, on the other hand, are organized around a scheduled set of challenges. Everyone involved knows what the goal is and works toward it. When the challenge arrives, it is fought and either won or lost togehter. The team either gets to revel in a job well done or focus their efforts for the next challenge.
And as far as rewards, youth ministries are again often vague. We promise heaven in the oh-so-distant future, and other assorted blessings - but only when God chooses to give them. Peace, prosperity, health, friends, stability, all are hoped for but may or may not come at any particular time, or even before graduating high school. We usually don't hold ourselves as youth ministers accountable for whether or not teens recieve the things we promise them. Extra-curriculars, on the other hand, have a regular schedule of rewards. Teens know that if i do X i will recieve Y on Z date. Honor, scholarships, and awards are all distributed as expected. In short, teens know what they're going to get out of it, and its often a lot more tangible and immediate.
I'm not saying that we should change our youth ministries and make them all like sports teams where we don't tolerate absentees and we use honor and rewards to bribe kids into doing what we want them to. But i do think this explains a lot of why teens and their families make the time decisions they do. Youth group will still be there next week if i can't make it this week - football might not be.
. . . . I just think that if we expect teens to make the Kingdom a priority, we may need to find a better way to channel their energy into it.
I'm trying to do some things at our youth group that will create opportunities for this kind of high-accountability, goal-focused teamwork, but i also believe teens still need a place where people are just glad that they came. If this makes sense to you or you have any ideas or challenges to this idea i'd love to hear them.