At a recent community event, the keynote speaker addressed our responsibility to reach out to young people and make them feel welcome.
“Our youth are important. We need you,” she insisted. “You are our future.”
Unfortunately, no young people were in the audience to hear her message.
We must do more than tell young people 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.
Several years ago, the president of the church council walked into my office. I was director of youth ministry. He explained the council wanted to more fully involve 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.
“The youth can plan the service and fill all of the ministry roles,” he continued.
“Like preach the message?” I asked. “Or lead the singing?”
“Of course, not. They can pass out programs,” 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.”
“That’s a great idea!” I replied. “But you know who I’m worried about? Our elderly adults.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Why don’t we ask our elderly church members 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 the young people want to do it?” I asked.
There is a difference between community service and menial labor.
Preparation for special events ideally involves all members of a community – including the youth. However, it’s not the best tactical plan if you want to get teens through the front door.
Successful service projects flow from relationships already established between youth and adults.
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 fully invite and 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 youth. Brainstorm ways young people can become more involved in your group. Discuss their unique gifts and ways they can be shared with others.
Invite young people to discuss how they want to be involved in the community. 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 the 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. Unfortunately, many adults believe it is their role to dictate development of programs and the role of young people to follow their directions. Equip adults with tools to learn how to be a good role models. Young people learn leadership skills by acting as leaders.
Develop teams of young people to plan activities (including service projects) and form special interest groups.
Actively involve trained young leaders to serve on larger community planning boards, commissions, and collaborative leadership teams with adults.
Provide 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 conduct fundraising events to support their own programs. Provide equitable program funding for groups of all ages.
Invite young people to be part of the planning process with adults of community events.
Create opportunities for youth to mentor one another.
It is exciting when teens empowered with leadership skills 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 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 the most powerful experiences I shared with a youth leader occurred after I delivered a keynote presentation at a youth conference in San Francisco.
During my absence, an 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 in the parish 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?
About Dr. Julie Connor
As a TEDx speaker, educator, youth advocate, and collaborative leadership consultant, Julie Connor, Ed.D., prepares youth to be leaders and adults to be mentors and role models. She provides youth and adults with tools to collaborate, build teamwork, define their purpose, and align attainable goals with their vision and core values. Julie is the author of the award-winning goal-setting book, Dreams to Action Trailblazer’s Guide.
Learn more at www.DrJulieConnor.com.