No Substitute for Belonging

Like most Christian mothers, Cathy was concerned about her children as they entered their teen years. She had participated in a dynamic church youth program that had been instrumental in shaping her Christian identity. She wanted something like that for her two children – Jim and Ann.

But the church the family attended was a small membership church. Less than a handful of teens attended and all were nearing the end of their teen years while Jim and Ann were just entering that stage of life. Jim and Ann had been about the only regular attendees as older children and Cathy feared for them if that pattern continued into their teens.

It was a painful decision. The church had ministered to Cathy and her family during a crisis time for which she was grateful. And the family liked the church despite the stresses and strains that go with life in a small congregation.

Still, the spiritual welfare of her children was at stake. She had to do what was best for them.

So not long into their teen years, Cathy, Jim, and Ann began attending a nearby large membership church where teens had their own place of worship and a list of activities and ministries that almost never ended. Cathy threw herself into the new congregation becoming active in Bible study and choir. Jim and Ann almost never missed a youth activity and Cathy was a supporting parent.

But something did not seem right.

Neither child complained or said anything until over a year later. Around the dinner table one evening the family talked about their new church. Jim finally said he liked being a member of a church where the adults new his name and who he was more than being a part of a church offering a never-ending list of activities.

To Jim and Ann, the Wednesday night youth service, complete with a rock band and flashing lights, was not as important as relationships. Being surrounded by other teens was not as important as a sense of belonging to a larger family.

Don’t be surprised. That is a normal reaction.

More than 10 years ago a large study titled National Study of Youth and Religion found religiously serious teens “have a larger number of non-parental adults in their lives whom they can turn to for support, advice, and help.”

The study confirmed what most people already knew. The most important religious influence in a teen’s life is a parent.

But for teens serious about their religious faith, there is a second group of adults to whom the teens can turn to for support, advice, and help. These adults are not strangers to their parents either. Instead, these adults are likely known by the parents well enough to talk with them about their teens’ lives.

It is like a network surrounding and supporting the teens as they “increase in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”

An African saying contends “it takes a village to raise a child.” Those of us raised in large families know that village includes uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, neighbors, parent’s best friends, Sunday School teachers, church program leaders and more.

The National Study of Youth and Religion concluded, “In sum, the lives of more religious teens are, compared to less religious teens, statistically more likely…to be linked to and surrounded by adults, particularly non-parental adults who know and care about them and who themselves have social ties to the teen’s parents.”

Cathy listened to her children. A few weeks later the family was back at the smaller church, back where they felt part of a family, where the belonged. Jim and Ann became the core of the youth group. They helped build it up by bringing friends and classmates to the church. Their youth experience didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the nearby megachurch but it provided the essentials and more. Just on a smaller scale.

And on Youth Sunday of Jim’s senior year when he preached the Sunday morning sermon, the adults who lined up to congratulate him knew his name, knew his story and knew how God was working in his life.

While this is a true story of one family (with names changed), the experience has been lived out by countless families. Along the way, they have learned there is nothing wrong with a large youth group. But numbers don’t equal helping teens grow in Christ. There is nothing wrong with a rock band and flashing lights but cool technology doesn’t ensure experiencing God and learning His Word.

Many families have learned that to help teens become devoted to the Lord, there is no substitute for parents and other caring, Christian adults who are involved with teens. There is no substitute for helping teens know they are not shuttled aside but belong to a Christian family.