“Our youth are important. We need you,” he insisted. “You are our future.”
Unfortunately, no young people were in the audience to hear his message.
We must do more than tell youth they are welcome in our communities. We must invite them. We must involve them. We must ask for their input. We must listen. We must give them a reason to stay.
One day when I was director of a youth ministry program, the president of the church council walked into my office. He explained the council wanted to more fully involve the youth in the life of the church. And he had a plan about how to do it.
“Our annual church picnic is coming up,” he explained. “We want to invite our youth to be part of the event.”
The council wanted me to implement their plan and the youth to execute it.
“We want the kids to mow the lawn and set up chairs for the service,” he continued. “We want to involve them in the service, too.”
“Would you like them to speak at the service?” I asked. “Or select the music and lead the singing?”
“Of course, not. The teens can pass out programs and be ushers,” he said. “They can stack chairs after the service, set up picnic tables, serve food to everybody in attendance, and clean up after everyone goes home.”
“Thank you for your invitation to involve the youth,” I replied. “But how can we ensure senior citizens in our community feel welcome, too?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Why don’t we ask our senior citizens to set up the chairs and tables, prepare the meal for everyone, serve the food, and clean up after everyone goes home?”
“They don’t want to do that!” he exclaimed.
“Then, why would young people be eager to do it?” I asked.
Service opportunities offer very important ways to connect members within a community. However, efforts to increase organization involvement by inviting guests to serve the community are often unsuccessful without prior efforts to build relationships with new or alienated members first.
If you host a party, you don’t ask guests to prepare the meal and clean up when the party’s over. You invite them to sit in the best seats. You initiate conversations with them. You listen. You express how genuinely interested you are in them. You introduce them to other guests. That is good hospitality.
If young people are hooked to their cell phones and disengaged from the flurry of activity at events, there is a reason. It’s not because they’re uninterested in being part of the group. In fact, many young people are starving for opportunities to connect and build relationships with adults. They want to belong to groups where they feel welcome and their presence is valued. It’s not their fault they’re detached. It’s ours.
If you want to invite and more fully involve young people in the life of your community, you need to deliver more than an invitation. You need a plan:
- Initiate a dialogue among members of your community who want to reach out to the youth. Brainstorm ways young people can become more involved in your group. Include youth and young adults in the discussion. Explore their unique gifts and ways they can be shared with others.
- Invite youth within the community to discuss how they want to be involved. What makes them feel connected? What activities do they enjoy? Invite them to be part of event planning. Encourage them to bring their friends.
- Identify youth with leadership gifts. When I build a new leadership team, I personally select team members; it’s not a popularity contest. I look for a variety of different skills and build a collaborative squad of leaders.
- Provide training for a collaborative leadership team. Guide them through processes that allow them to create their own vision and mission. Show them how to align their goals with their vision and mission.
- Provide training for adults to act as mentors and role models. Equip adults with tools to be good role models. Children and teens learn leadership skills by the example they see demonstrated by adults.
- Develop teams of youth to plan activities (including service projects – especially service projects) and form special interest groups.
- Actively involve trained youth leaders to serve on larger community planning boards, commissions, and collaborative leadership teams with adults.
- Support youth leadership teams with funds to launch and operate their programs. Many church and community organizations provide funding for adult programs, but insist youth must be solely responsible for raising funds to support their programs. Provide equitable program funding for groups of all ages.
- Invite youth to be part of the planning process with adults. Collaborative planning with youth and adults is possible when all participants receive training and conduct meetings with agreed-upon norms.
- Create opportunities for adults to mentor youth – and train youth to mentor one another.
It is exciting when teens empowered with leadership skills are invited to represent their peers on church and community leadership teams with adults. However, young leaders often ask me, “How come we have to follow the rules of consensus and collaboration and the adults don’t have to?”
“Because you have leadership skills and training,” I explain. “Now, go and be role models.”
When we demonstrate respect for our youth through our words, actions, and invitation into full involvement in the life of our communities, they will come – and they will stay. And they will bring their friends. Their friends will bring their parents and curious adults. That’s how church and community organizations grow.
One of my most powerful leadership experiences with teens occurred after I delivered a keynote presentation at a youth conference in San Francisco.
During my absence, the architect of the new church announced plans to eliminate classrooms. Elaine was a member of our senior high planning team and a preschool teacher in our Sunday school program. She had vested interest in the plans.
I received a frantic call when I got home about an emergency meeting with the architect in the church hall.
“The architect is changing the plans!” she shouted. “You’ve got to get up here to the meeting and support us.”
I explained there was probably a misunderstanding and everything was going to be fine.
“You always say we’re more than the future Church, Julie,” she barked. “You say we’re the present church and what we have to say is important. You either believe it or you don’t. If you believe it, you better get up here right now.”
I said, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
That’s what happens when a young person is fully committed, active, and connected to the community. They hold us accountable. They measure our words by our actions. They model – and lead – by our example.
What can you do to more fully involve youth in your community?
Learn How to Be a Good Role Model with these tips.
Empower youth leaders with these tips from How to Build a Collaborative Leadership Team.
Prepare adults with suggestions from 10 Tips to Mentor Youth Like a Superstar.
Equip your community with skills to support youth with these tips from How to Be a Good Role Model.
Use these suggestions explore What’s Your Dream? and create a strong vision, mission, and goals.