5 Ways to Support Youth In Your Congregation

By Bart Frost

A.K.A. 5 Things Your Congregation Will Thank You For

Our survey of 351Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth provided some real gems and had some real flaws. Here are the five major takeaways we learned:

  1. Build Opportunities for Connection
    This survey shows us that our youth want to be involved in the life of their congregation because they are already invested in their congregation. Think about the times when you feel most welcome in a situation. Did someone invite you to the party, to worship, to a concert? When you showed up, did they ignore you or did they welcome you and engage you in conversation?
    Invite your youth to worship! If they can't make worship, invite them to coffee hour. If they can't make Sunday mornings, invite them to another program. If they say that worship doesn't feed their soul, ask them what would and then make it happen. If they can't get a ride on Sunday morning, set them up with a carpool. Invite them to give a sermon, share a musical talent, or give a testimonial about how Unitarian Universalism has made a difference in their life.
    Youth need to be a part of the entire life of the congregation. Our congregations are the last multi-generational spaces in our society. Our schools, our cities and neighborhoods, and our entertainment options are all segregated by age. Our current models of youth ministry place youth programming during worship or at a time when there is no one else in the church building.
    Some of the most important markers for a youth's future involvement (as an adult) in their congregation are participation in multigenerational worship (PDF) and relationships with adults in their congregation. Having a relationship with a minister is incredibly important as well: 81% of youth surveyed in the National Study for Youth and Religion have never shared a personal problem with a member of their ministry team. Now, our survey didn't ask that question so we don't have statistics about it in Unitarian Universalism. But think about your congregation: Who is on the pastoral care team? Who provides pastoral care for youth?
    The more connection points your youth have with the life of your congregation, the deeper their faith will grow.
  2. Leadership is Taught and Caught
    Do you want to expand the impact of your congregation's ministry? Invite young people into leadership roles. We have to do more than just make space for our youth to lead; as people who minister to youth (that's YOU) it is our responsibility to provide mentorship and to teach leadership. Healthy leadership doesn't just manifest itself in the world (see: this excellent example of my point). It is important to identify what youth are passionate about (putting a governance wonk on the building team is a waste of talent!) and find ways they can use that passion to support the church. Don't just put a youth on a committee to have a youth on the committee (Belonging, page 95 (PDF)—it's not a good feeling to be selected for a position you are ill-equipped for and failing at.
    After fifteen years of leadership within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), I am constantly learning about my own leadership by watching and engaging with leaders I respect. I learned leadership as a teen from older youth and adults who provided opportunities for me to step up and coached me through the responsibilities. I failed, but I did not fail alone. I made mistakes that I look back on with embarrassment, but my peers and mentors helped me acknowledge them and work through them. Success was all the sweeter because there was a community with which to celebrate.
    I recommend using a shared leadership model (PDF) instead of "empowerment" models where adults are present solely to comply with Safe Congregations policies. Again, healthy relationships with adults create lifelong faith partners. Watch as the youth you invite in to leadership mentor their peers, create energy and momentum for your entire program, and the ministry of your congregation snowballs because of the increase in volunteer capacity.
  3. Quickest Way Into a Youth's Heart: Food
    "Bart," you are thinking, "duh."
    I know, I know. But this is about more than providing a couple of pizzas during movie night or as an incentive for showing up. To break bread together, in community, is to create a holy moment out of a seemingly mundane exchange.
    There are other ways to build community and form faith with food. Think about a time you and someone you love cooked with each other. Maybe it was a parent, a romantic partner, or a younger relative. Maybe you spent the time joking, or discussing politics, or a tough moment, or taught each other new techniques. How did you feel afterward, as you shared the meal you made together? Reflect upon that time that you cooked for someone you love or a time they cooked for you. What feelings arose as you crafted the perfect meal for them? How did you feel after you shared it with them? How did they feel?
    Ask your youth to plan a meal together, to cook together, and to eat together. Assist them in singing, sharing, and laughing together during the effort. Before the meal have a moment of silence or prayer, or use an activity to honor one another. At GoldMine, playing cards set in front of us and we were asked to write an affirmation for the person sitting to the right of us. Food ministries are a great way to build community and raise funds for service trips. The youth group at First Parish in Lexington, MA made and sold soup every Sunday morning to support their service trip. The youth group could plan and serve a meal as a fundraiser, but what if they did it as part of their ministry to the congregation? What if they fed and shared a meal with the younger children in the church? Be bold as you combine youth and food ministry!
  4. Go Beyond Your Walls
    A fourth takeaway from this survey is that youth want their congregation to be active in their community and to support living their Unitarian Universalist values in the world. All too often we focus way too much on our internal drama and process. As a liberal religious people, we are called to share our faith widely and with joy. That "Universalism" in our name calls us to live our love outwardly as much as we live it internally. Our youth know thisMillennials have higher rates of volunteer service than Boomers did when they were 16-35.
    Our youth have pushed our Association on anti-racism and LGBT+ issues for years and years. They struggle with it every single day because their friends and family are LGBT+. They watch their friends of color face discrimination or harassment on a daily basis. They got bullied for their religious beliefs.
    Is your congregation a sanctuary for LGBT+ youth? Has your congregation marched for #BlackLivesMatter? Challenged the school-to-prison pipeline? Sponsored a GSA at a local school?
    How does your congregation participate in the interfaith community in your city/town? We live in an increasingly multi-faith and multicultural world. Go beyond your walls to build community and relationships with the churches around them.
    Service trips are important to creating opportunities to deepen faith, because they create a discrete opportunity for youth to live their faith with their peers and with reflection. Beyond service trips, other immersive experiences are important for deepening faith and community. Do you have an annual youth retreat? Do you do cluster retreats or conferences with nearby congregations? These types of experiences deepen faith by expanding youth's relationships and understanding of Unitarian Universalism. Many current leaders within Unitarian Universalism caught the General Assembly bug because it showed them a Unitarian Universalism that went beyond their congregation.
  5. "Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church ;)"
    As someone who does ministry to and with youth—and that means you, whether you're a parent, minister, youth, religious educator, or just someone who found this article randomly—it's important to occasionally step back and ask our youth, "What do you need from this church and what do you want to give to this church?"
    You might not hear the answer you want ("No, we aren't turning the church into a paintball arena."), but there's always a possibility for an epiphany. One of JLA's Five Smooth Stones reminds us that revelation is continuous. The more opportunities we create for our youth to create deep, meaningful relationships within the entire community, the stronger their connections to Unitarian Universalism will be. Don't forget, most of these techniques are effective for more than just youth ministry (PDF)! Good ministry is good ministry, no matter what adjective goes in front of it. Thanks to the many people who helped me navigate the survey and all of the youth who filled it out! Read the entire series.
Emma bliss

Youth enjoying General Assembly Worship / UUA.
Photo/Nancy Pierce

Multi-generational conversation at General Assembly. 2015/Nancy Pierce
UUA Board of Trustees

Caleb Leman, co-Youth Observer to the UUA Board of Trustees in session after General Assembly 2015. Photo by Nancy Pierce

Youth/Adult Shared Leadership Model, by Jesse Jaeger and Beth Dana.
Bliss Food and Youth 2

Youth and Young Adults create a meal and dine together at the Counselor training for MDD's QUUest Camp 2014. Photo by Emily Conger.
Bliss Food and Youth 1

Youth and Young Adults create a meal and dine together at the Counselor training for MDD's QUUest Camp 2014. Photo by Emily Conger.

Youth march at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches. Photo by Chris Walton UU World.

Youth from Burlington, VT doing Hurricane Sandy relief. / UUCSJ

"Web of Youth Ministry" / Jesse Jaeger and Beth Dana