On my dad’s side of the family, I’m the oldest of 15 cousins. There were too many of us to fit around one table at my family gatherings, so my grandparents came up with a clever solution: two tables. The first table was the adult table.
The second table? You guessed it. It was the kid table.
The contrast between the two tables was stark. The adults ate in the dining room. We ate in the TV room. The adults had real china; we had paper plates, or if we were lucky, plastic. The adult table had sparkling and interesting conversation. The kid table inevitably degenerated into rolls flying through the air and Jell-O–snorting contests.
Two separate tables, two very different experiences.
Does this sound like your family? How about your church?
In churches today, there’s an adult worship service and a youth worship service. We have an adult worship team and a teen worship band. The larger the church, the greater the separation.
Is it good for teenagers to be on their own some of the time? Absolutely.
But one of my life mantras says that balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme. In our effort to offer meaningful and relevant ministry to kids, we’ve segregated them—and I don’t use the verb segregated lightly—from the broader church.
Helpful Images with Harmful Consequences
The way we think about the church profoundly shapes the way we think about teens’ place within the church. Some of the common—even biblical—images we use to describe the church, while admittedly inspired and powerful, can have potentially harmful consequences for kids because of our unintentional miscommunication.
Our Use of the Word Church
The New Testament Greek word for church is ekklesia from ek and kaleo, meaning called out from or the called-out ones. To think of a church as merely a building runs counter to the New Testament description of church.1 The well-known nursery rhyme, “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people,” is actually heresy. It is more theologically accurate to say, “Here is the building, this is the steeple, open the doors and see the church, which is people.” Not as catchy, to be sure.
My church, Lake Avenue Church, is not the building located at 393 N. Lake Avenue. It is the people who gather at 393 N. Lake Avenue and then live as kingdom people during the rest of the week.
What does this mean for youth ministry? If we think of or refer to the church as a building (e.g., “Let’s go to church”), what does that make our students? They are the guests, the visitors at that building. And they better not make too much of a mess while they are visiting.
The Bride of Christ
Moving on from this most fundamental understanding of church as ekklesia, let’s look at another mystical image of the church periodically used by youth workers: the church as “Christ’s bride.”2 We as the bride of Christ are being prepared for the coming day of marriage to the Groom, who both awaits us and is purifying us for himself. Looking ahead, we wait in anticipation for the wedding feast of the Lamb described in Revelation.
We want and need an eschatological view of our future. The imagery of the bride of Christ is an important and biblically rooted picture. But let’s think about how this imagery is misunderstood in youth ministry. All too often, teenagers are seen as part of the church’s future instead of also the church’s present. As youth workers, we know that teenagers are not just the church of tomorrow. It’s trite but true: teenagers are the church of today.
The Body of Christ
Some of us—and our congregations—speak of the church primarily along the lines of Paul’s description as the “body of Christ”.3 As the body, all of us function as parts of Christ’s body in our communities and across the world. In this metaphor, everyone has a place, and that place is marked by our service to the rest of the body.
This is a wonderful and often used picture of the church. As a youth leader, I want teenagers searching for a sense of identity and significance to know that they have gifts and that those gifts can impact others. However, the potential danger with this imagery is that it can be misinterpreted to lack a sense of relationship and instead focus on the instrumental value of the parts. It’s high on mission and purpose and low on a core need of adolescents: love.
The Family of God
If love is what we want, then this fourth and final image of church helps us move toward that goal. The metaphor of the family of God, which appears in Scripture only once, in 1 Peter 4:17, carries the image of family, of a tribe or cohesive community, that is inherently appealing to us.
This is an important image, but what is often lost in this image is the role of biological or adopted families. In this family-of-God imagery, what place do teenagers’ parents, stepparents and foster parents play in the spiritual formation of teens? Recent research continues to confirm the enormous influence parents have on their kids—for the good, the bad and the ugly. As Christian Smith from Notre Dame explained, both in Soul Searching and at a panel at Fuller Seminary, parents are the most dominant influence on their kids’ faith. As he summarized at the panel at Fuller, “When it comes to faith, parents get what they are.”
An Intentionally Inclusive and Intergenerational Image
An image we’ve been re-exploring at Fuller Seminary recently is the church as a “family of families.” We think this image has merit because it captures the spiritual reality that all followers of Jesus are family to one another—spiritual siblings, actually. And yet this image also acknowledges that we exist in biological (or legally adopted) parent-child relationships that God wove into the design of creation. So in the midst of our spiritual family, we keep our biological family too.
Dr. Dennis Guernsey, a former Fuller faculty member who was an early proponent for this ecclesiology, wrote:
I am suggesting that the church redefine itself in system terms as the whole but with the parts being its families rather than the individuals in those families. Even where there are no families… I am suggesting that the parts which make up the whole be construed as those clusters of primary relationships which function as family. The church according to this redefinition becomes a family of families.4
You might be concerned by any phrasing that includes the word family, since kids today are often adrift from their families. I myself am a daughter of divorce and am fairly sensitive to phrases that may alienate kids who come from “atypical” families. That’s why the middle sentence in the quote is so important: “The parts which make up the whole be construed as those clusters of primary relationships which function as family.”
This extension of family to include those who fill the role of family members (even if they are not biologically related) parallels the thinking of sociologist Diana Garland. In her well-known book Family Ministry, Garland acknowledges the structural definition of biological or legally adopted family but then stretches us to also think about a functional definition of family. This functional definition acknowledges those who are not biologically related but nonetheless meet kids’ needs for belonging and attachment.
While the term family of families is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, we at Fuller Seminary think it well captures the family-of-God imagery while also acknowledging the enormous influence and importance of smaller community groups that function as families. In fact, viewing the church as a family of families aligns with the most central aspects of the images previously mentioned: it focuses on people as the church; it reminds us that the ultimate goal of all of our familial relationships is unity with Christ as his bride; it points to the importance of each person’s contributions as the body of Christ; and it obviously highlights our relationships as spiritual siblings.
A New 5:1 Ratio
My colleague, Chap Clark, says a lot of brilliant things. But one of the most brilliant things he has said in the last few years is that it’s time to reverse the normal adult:student ratio in youth ministry. In youth ministry, we talk a lot about a preferred ratio of one adult for every five kids on the retreat, or one adult for every seven kids for our Sunday morning small groups.
What if we flipped that ratio upside down? What if we said we need five adults pouring into one kid?
When I say this to youth workers, I see their bodies get tense. I can tell they are thinking, I’m having a hard enough time recruiting one small group leader for five kids, and now you want me to round up five leaders for every single kid?”
I’m not talking about five Bible study leaders. I’m talking about an adult in your church who meets a kid named Claire and remembers Claire’s name. Or an adult who talks to Nathan and asks how they can be praying for him. And then the next week, they ask Nathan how it’s going with soccer this week.
Some churches are taking baby steps toward this 5:1 goal. I’m a volunteer at my church, leading a group of high school juniors on Sunday mornings. My own church recently had a special six-week Sunday school class that combined specially invited high school upperclassmen with senior adults. The theme of the class was Christ and Culture. Some of the most meaningful moments in the class were when the teenagers showed how they were trying to shape culture. One kid brought in his guitar and played a song he had written. Another girl wanted to be a fashion designer and brought in sketches of her clothes. The kids had the chance to share their best talents, and then the senior adults oohed and aahed over the kids’ gifts and asked them how their faith shaped their work.
I met a youth worker a few weeks ago whose church encourages juniors and seniors to step away from small groups that are comprised only of their peers and instead join adult small groups in the church. The kids do this in groups of twos or threes so they still have some friends their own age in the small group.
More and more youth ministries are taking even larger leaps toward intentional intergenerational relationships that lead to this new 5:1 ratio. One youth ministry that was meeting both on Sundays and Wednesdays started asked the question, “Why are we meeting twice per week? What’s the purpose of each meeting?” They realized that they were more or less offering the same sort of worship, teaching and fellowship twice and that hardly any of their students were involved in the larger church.
So they cancelled Sunday youth group. No more Sunday meetings. Now kids are fully integrated into the church on Sundays. They are greeters; they serve alongside adults on the music team; they are involved in giving testimonies; they even take chunks of the sermon from time to time. As the youth pastor was describing this shift, he said that not only has it changed the kids; it’s changed the church.
Do 13- and 16-year-olds need to be together on their own at times? Absolutely. But I’m inspired by churches that are realizing that the kingdom is more than separate adult and kids’ tables; it’s followers of all ages who feast together on the goodness of God’s kingdom and invite others to join the celebration.
- In what ways does your church have separate “kid tables” and “adult tables”? What do you think Jesus would say about that?
- What are the advantages of trying to surround each kid with 5 adults who care about them? What are the costs?
- In your role in your church, how can you help change your church’s culture?
- What current events, rituals or worship services does your ministry or church offer that could be infused with a 5:1 flavor?
A version of this article also appears in the July/August print issue of Immerse Journal
1. 1 Corinthians 11-14: A great resource for exploring the biblical writings on the church is Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, revised edition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
2. 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21
3. 1 Corinthians 12:1-31, Ephesians 1:15-22
4. Dennis B. Guernsey, A New Design for Family Ministry (Elgin, IL: D.C. Cook Pub, 1982), 100.
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