High schoolers passing in the night

I volunteer with the high school ministry at my church. Each Wednesday night I help to lead a small group of high school guys. And each Sunday morning I am one of the adults trying to engage our students in some sort of meaningful conversation.

Journey is of the size where you can successfully go for ages without ever actually talking to someone. And the high school group is much the same. I’d estimate weekly attendance to our weekend experience like this:

  • 50% regulars (They come on Sunday and Wednesday nearly every week)
  • 25% irregulars (They come on Sunday 1-3 times per month)
  • 25% who the heck are you? (They come every 6 weeks or are a one-time visitor)

Journey is also the kind of place where you can grow as much or as little as you’d like as a leader. So we have students in many different areas of responsibility in the church. These are amazing young men and women who will make you turn your head 25 degrees to the right and say, “High schoolers can do that?

Sunday morning is a expression of two students passing in the night.

  • Students for whom Christ is at the center, He is changing them and they are growing fast.
  • Students whom are checking out of their relationship with Jesus. As soon as their parents allow them, they’ll not come back.

It’s this sad-hopeful spot in which I sit each Sunday. Both students are on a journey– hopefully towards Christ. One is taking the more direct, obvious and measurable path, while the other is from Missouri, the Show Me State. They may re-engage later in life. But until they have the opportunity to check some things out they aren’t ready to give their lives to this thing.

I can see the unexpressed frustration on both ends of the spectrum. Those who are growing are looking at their peers and thinking, “When are you going to wake up?” And those who are looking to check out are thinking, “Why don’t you just shut up so I can get out of here?” It sometimes gets expressed through passive-aggression but it is most-often unspoken.

But it’s that tension, two students passing in opposite directions, which you can feel in our high school ministry.

Earlier in my ministry career I freaked out about this. I might have thought it was something we could correct. And I certainly would have thought it was something we needed to directly address. But as I’ve gotten a bit older (maybe wiser) I’ve learned that both types of students are on the same spiritual journey. Little I say and do can effect either of the groups. In the end, being loving and supportive and listening and respectful of their story is going to make way more impact.

Question: Do you see this same phenomenon in your ministry? Are you actively addressing it or passively observing it?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

10 comments

  1. I do, especially in our 9th grade confirmation program. Some are there and soaking everything in while others are just tolerating and trying to get by. I definitely observe more than react but some action I’ve taken is specifically and individually trying to engage each student in conversation about their interests (dance, track, etc). I then try to encourage them out to “impact” events as well “fun” stuff we do as a group.

  2. Great post! I think the same trend probably continues into adulthood. I wonder for the students who are likely to leave, their likelyhood to return to church in the future is most likely directly related to their experiences now. Did they feel valued and genuinely cared for by individuals who authentically lived out the christian faith, both leaders and students, while they were participating.

  3. I do see the same phenomenon. The way I address it is to try and actively engage them in conversation on Sunday. However, I do passively observe it, knowing that I have little control over the decisions that they make. In a way, I try to plant the seeds, and hope that the ground is ready. 

  4. great thoughts and questions, but i’m so distracted by the odd notion of turning one’s head 25 degrees to the right.

  5. Currently see the same. But the situations are so much more complex it seems. Attendance isn’t really the goal, but yet it’s what we focus upon being the measure of how a students is doing spiritually. The thing that gets me is what i don’t see during the service. The drama, the hurt, the broken relationships that are causing many students to check out from hearing what God might say to to them. This is where what you wrote about seems to jump into my mind. These two groups usually don’t interact all that much. The “followers” don’t get the ones who just want to leave, and the one’s wanting to leave don’t really have with the followers. The hardest thing doesn’t seem to be investing into their lives, getting them to consider following, but helping to invest into each other’s lives. Currently, I am meeting with two young men that are on opposite sides of the spectrum about every other week. And it’s been an amazing thing to see the spirit building a relationship between them. Doing this on a larger scale, not sure… but gotta start somewhere I guess. Blessings Adam.

  6. I’m not actively addressing it as I’m pretty new still to the ministry, and don’t have the relational ground yet with the students. But definitely seeing the same thing within both the high schoolers and the middle schoolers. In past ministries i’ve chosen mainly to, as you said, “In the end, be loving and supportive and listen…” while obviously praying for them. But still being relatively new to youth ministry (pastoring 3 years) I am tempted to directly address it or panic easily because, like all of us as youth pastors, I want to see them in relationship with Christ and experience his love, But as frustrating as it can be, I completely agree, listening and being respectful of their story no matter which end of the spectrum their in is the way to go…

  7. Their genuine struggle to find their own believer’s identity generally plays out first socially according to their own needs, wants and developing aspirations. Adding to this mix is a deeper layer of hidden spiritual dimension that initially is neither tangible to them nor controllable without having the type of solid, trusting relationships in which to give teenagers an emotional anchor that provides the necessary contemporary contextualization.
    How can a teenager discover such inspirational connections? Some find a trustworthy anchor to be an exciting protective enclave where they can freely express, openly share and hopefully grow-up in to the promised fulfillment that should take shape in their hearts. Others might find these exciting expressions through art, music, volunteer projects, worship & praise events or unique teachings that seem to speak directly to them.  Without this dynamic connectivity, the heavenly simply stays heavenly, which is usually OK for the moment, but not perceived as a life-giving solution.
    I have watched struggling teenagers develop psychological resistance that becomes a type of mental resentment as they build up internal refusals against the concerns from parents, coaches, teachers, pastors, friends and other concerned adults. For them, the anchor is viewed as an oppressive weight, an obligatory burden and a waste of their time, energy and especially their value system. It is as if the boiling point simmers inside and flashes to anger when their self-worth is questioned, constrained or pressured to conformity.

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