The Problem with Teenage Sunday School Class

Not for the faint of heart…
I’m going to make a HUGE UNCOMFORTABLE CRITIQUE of traditional Youth Sunday School here. I’m doing it as a three decade veteran of youth ministry, which by the yardsticks at the time (ie “numbers), I was pretty successful at. Some of you aren’t going to like it. Some of you will agree in part. And a few will say, “I’ve been thinking the same thing!” All of us, however, need to have this discussion, especially with younger youth leaders who can benefit from learning about our past successes and mistakes.  (Note: This is one of many articles I’ve posted about Sunday School and Youth Group experiments, experiences, statistics, and ideas for going forward. You can find a menu of those other articles at www.sundaysoftware.com/stats.htm.)
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First, the problem….

“The Emperor Has No Clothes”

1. We’ve done a disservice to most of our teens by herding them into traditional discussion-oriented classes on Sunday morning. Reason being: the research, stats, and decades of experience says it’s not producing adult disciples. (To put it mildly: where are all those kids that used to be in our classes?

2. And we’ve done an especially big disservice by putting Jr. Highs together in the same room with each other, -where their primary biological imperative at that point is to not look stupid or uncool in front of their peers. The result: they clam up, and allow the “behaviorally challenged” to rule the roost. Jr. Highs in the same room together would give JESUS a hard time. Such an environment sets the stage for diminished returns in High School. (For their own sake, 7th and 8th graders need to spend LESS time with each other! I’d say “LOL” if it weren’t so true.)

One of the reasons we are captive of the HERD model: Enthusiastic young, do-gooding youth leaders and Sunday School teachers who believe they relate well to teens, and believe that if they can just talk to the kids they can get through to them.”
Another reason we are captive of SOME “talking head” leaders is that they enjoy the pulpit which the classroom gives them. What we often get then is a mild Bible class that gives the young people a tolerable place to go. But if you asked them, they’d tell you they’d rather be somewhere else, …and in a few years THEY WILL BE. (Indeed, where are all the high schoolers who used to fill our classes?)

3. We have ALSO herded teens into classes because talk is cheap, and it is easier to program teenagers as a group than it is to deal with them more effectively as individuals.

At a time when their individuality and individual needs are at a critical point, and at a time in their life when they are most susceptible to peer pressure, what do we do? …we sit them down in groups and ask them to open up in front of peers who they may not even know or like.

The results speak for themselves. Even in apparently “successful” youth classes, ask the kids what they think. They’ll tell you it’s “better than sitting in worship,” but not by much. Or, “as long as I have to come, it’s ‘okay’.” And even in classes that are better than most, (such as all the youth classes I ever taught…hahaha) the long-term effect of such classes is in serious question.

Note: Some youth classes are well attended NOT because the class itself is attractive, but because either (A) The adult classes are great and the parents are committed, or (B) The youth classes are held during worship and provide an alternative to sitting in a pew and listening to the sermon.

And BTW: The idea of herding teenagers out of worship to attend a peer group discussion, when many of them have joined the church through Confirmation, and in a few short years will be off to college, …well, it’s one of the stupidest things churches do. When do we expect them to become comfortable and in worship? Statistically speaking, we might as well tell them to stay home, and save ourselves the time and trouble.

Truth be told:

A. Many of teens who come through our Sunday School classes drop off by their Junior year and rarely darken the door of the church thereafter.

B. Many of the teens who grow up in the church and seems to have a growing faith, are doing so IN SPITE OF the teen Sunday School Class. Or at least, it is not as critical to their growth as we suppose. Instead, we can point to their family, their interest in worship, youth group, mission work, and ONE ON ONE relationship with a faith mentor (such as a Sunday School teacher or youth leader!) which is more important and formative than a class.

C. Many teens need another less threatening way of learning & relating their faith than sitting in our classes STIFLED by their apathetic peers.

Indeed, some of the most faithful teens I’ve ever worked with do not like hanging out with their peers because they do not like to be with them.

I say these things as a three-decade veteran of youth Sunday School, veteran youth minister, and as somebody who was probably better than most at relating to teens and “talking to them.” And I say these things looking back on the many HUNDREDS of youth I’ve pastored to in classes, as confirmands, youth groups, on mission trips, and individually. Indeed, some of the the most successful stories I have been involved with were with kids who for one reason or another found themselves on the outside of their own Sunday School class and peer group, either figuratively or literally, or both.

So with apologies to Ecclesiastes 3…

IT IS TIME TO BLOW IT UP

And I’m not talking about “changing the curriculum” or “finding a better teacher” or “painting the youthroom.” Tinkering ain’t the answer anymore. Rather, I’m talking about moving away from the herd towards a ministry that TREATS TEENS AS INDIVIDUALS instead of a group or class.

And with regard to Sunday Morning… I’m talking about this:
Turning more of our teens into Teaching Assistants and Worship leaders.
Yes, there are some practical considerations, especially if you have an abundance of teens. But I’m willing to be IMPRACTICAL in some respects -in order to do ministry that produces disciples instead of just classes. The devil is in the details, but it can be done in most churches.

I’ll get to the details in a moment.
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Why it’s a much better idea:

The idea of having the TEENS work with the Adults and Children, rather than herding them into their own repressive peer group, is based on how most people, but especially young people, come to their faith, and feel connected in the church, –by getting involved.

As any parent or experienced teacher can tell you, teens learn better and really listen through EXPERIENCE and EXAMPLE. Sitting around and listening to an adult talking-head is way down the list. (Many young adult youth leaders don’t know this because they haven’t yet raised teens, and don’t spend enough years in ministry to see the lack of results which the talking-heads get.)

Turning teens into teachers and having them work with younger children also addresses the needs of many teens.
Teens crave attention, being needed and being loved. Most respond to responsibility. The last thing they need is YET ANOTHER CLASS like they get five days a week., –thrown in with kids who they don’t necessarily know that well, if at all, –and who arrive with varying levels of commitment and self-discipline. Even among peers who they DO know, such a peer group can be an oppressive environment for those inclined to thoughtful discussion.

By having them work with the children, the peer issue largely disappears from the experience. They can drop their guard. And AS teachers they will learn both the content of the lesson and its heart by helping lead Sunday School classes for the children.

Did I mention that the younger kids will idolize them? It can be a real self-esteem booster at a time in their life when they need all they can. This is one of my favorite “side effects” of teaching with teens, –the quirky awkward ones shine among the little kids.
Inviting teens to teach with you also gives ADULTS a new way of relating to teens at a deeper shared level. As I look back at 30 years of youth ministry and Sunday School, inviting teens to teach with me has been one of the most rewarding personal experiences for me.

Now let’s look at the details of “HOW”…

If you have just a few teens, the “how” is easy. If you have “many”, it gets more complicated. I’ll address that in a moment. But suffice to say, that the AVERAGE church has “few”, and will eventually have less if they don’t do something different and more meaningful. And YES, this will take more time and preparation, but it will also get better results. (And I personally believe that anybody who doesn’t have the time to do it right shouldn’t be doing it at all.)

Since 1990 I have been inviting teens to come help me teach in my computer labs. Not only are teens ENAMORED of technology, they are good at using it! And the moment you put them next to children, most teens drop their fascade and begin to open up. It’s a wonderful thing to watch. It is not a stretch to say that one of the reasons I was intrigued with computers in Christian education in the first place. I saw a wonderful opportunity to get my teens involved.

In fact, I have often told people that my “secret #1 reason to start a computer lab was to give the teens a place to help teach.

Many churches have asked me if they should schedule their Youth classes into the lab, and I’ve been honest with them. I’ve said, “Six Jr Highs in that lab will all try to work against you and the computers for two reasons: to show how cool they are with computers, and to show you they are Jr. Highs.” But work with them to become computer lab assistants to the 1st and 2nd graders, and they will blossom.

I must admit, I didn’t come to this conclusion in a brainstorm, but by roundabout and long-term experience. In the middle of running some “great” teen Sunday School classes, I was also experimenting with what we ended up calling the “Workshop Rotation Model” for Sunday School. We had a computer lab in our rotation of workshops and and I NEEDED BODIES.

Back in the early 90′s, most adults didn’t know how to work with a computer, but many of my TEENAGERS DID. So I started recruiting them to help me teach with me in our computer workshop, and they were wonderful.

Then we got some of our artistic teens involved helping in the Art Workshop, then the Games Workshop (they were great at being team leaders). Then we pulled some of our theater-oriented teens into our Theater Workshop to help the children do skits about the Bible lesson.

In other words, our Sunday School design NEEDED extra helpers. That’s an important concept. We didn’t just dump our teens into a bunch of sedentary younger kids’ classes. The children’s workshops NEEDED the help because the learning in those workshops was active and up-out-of-your-chair.

To learn more about the Workshop model, go to www.sundaysoftware.com/rotation.htm and read my articles.

You don’t have to be doing the Workshop Rotation Model. You can create slots for teens in traditional classes as well (though perhaps not as many as in the Rotation model) . And you could just create one or two special “workshop style” or “active” classes where the teachers and lesson plans have been PRIMED to include teen helpers.
.=.

Other Venues:
Some churches have a pre-class “assembly” or children’s worship time. This is a perfect project for teens and adult leaders to work on together. You can have two groups of teens in rotation helping lead: One group prepares on week 1, and presents on week 2, –while the other group is presenting on week 1 and preparing on week 2 of your schedule.
In this way you can mix traditional classwork with active helping.

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Thoughts on Managing the Helpers:

Ideally, your teens would be SCHEDULED ahead of time so they knew what workshop or class they were working with. Ideally, they would establish a relationship with a teacher or two, and a group of the children. Working with teens requires a lot of communication and reminders. Be prepared to text message and Facebook!

Not every teen is cut out to be a teaching assistant.Some teens will prefer to sit with mom or dad in adult Bible study, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! A few teens could go the sanctuary to help prepare for worship leadership (perhaps not that same week, but to prepare for the next week with a special “Teens in Worship” coordinator who works with the pastor). Others can be assigned to help out the ushers or greeters or etc. Teens like being asked, and like being recognized. Just don’t thrown them out there on their own.

Make sure your adult leaders have been PRIMED to work with teens. In other words, make it a ministry.In larger churches that have larger youth classes, you can offer teaching and helping positions as an organized alternative to going to an established class. In other words, GIVE YOUTH A CHOICE, and then actively recruit your “class” students to join in becoming helpers, rather than hiding-out in the youth class. In the long-run, it will help them feel connected to the church and to their budding faith.

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A HERETICAL OPINION:

I’d rather work with 3 or 4 interested teens to become faithful teachers in our program than herd 7 or 8 teens a week into a “talking head class” only to watch most of them SLIDE OUT THE BACK DOOR in a year or two. 

I used to run teen classes with 15 and 25 kids a Sunday! …and in retrospect, it was the kids I involved in teaching and helping around the church who seemed to really “GET” what the church was all about. As a minister, it was some of the most satisfying ministry I did.

Of course, with any great idea you’ll also have naysayers. Most parents and adults seem oblivious to the connection between herding teens into a mediocre class, and their exit through the backdoor years later. Honestly, I’d rather watch a disagreeable family leave the church than CAVE IN to the parent’s belief that a Sunday School class for their teen is in the teen’s best long-term interest, -especially if that class is during worship. ESPECIALLY. 

We have a lot of work to do, including reprogramming our parents along the line of “what really works.“ 

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…..

Youth Sunday School Class during Worship is an abomination, or at least ”awful” :-)

Teens should be IN WORSHIP when it’s Worship Time, and that means that they should NOT also be pulled out of Worship to go to class or help with Sunday School on more than an occasional basis.

Teens need to learn how to become comfortable in Worship. One of the biggest problems the church faces is with people who don’t understand our language and practice, …who don’t know how to participate, or pray, or sing a hymn, or listen to a sermon. We need to START THEM YOUNG, and not cave in to the few malcontent teens (and their parents) who think teens will somehow magically reappear at the doorstep of the church ten years later. Statistically speaking, that Emperor doesn’t have any clothes either.

I hope this article has stimulated some of your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment below.

I must admit, I didn’t come to this conclusion in a brainstorm. Rather, it began by accident. And it was this “accident” that also had the answer to the “HOW TO”. It is one thing to have three or four teens to volunteer each Sunday rather than sticking them in a class. But it is a whole different level of practicality if you have a dozen teens each week to deal with. The problem is that each teen still has the same needs regardless of how big your program is. So maybe your PROGRAM needs to evolve to create places for individuals to serve. Read how I did that accident…

In the middle of running some “great” teen Sunday School classes, I was also inventing something called the “Workshop Rotation Model” for Sunday School, and experimenting with computers in some of those classes. AND I NEEDED BODIES. . Back in the early 90′s, most adults didn’t know how to work with a computer, but many of my TEENAGERS DID. So I started recruiting them to help me teach with me in our computer workshop. Then we got some of our artistic teens involved helping in the Art Workshop, then the Games Workshop (they were great at being team leaders). Then we pulled some of my theater-teens into our Theater Workshop.

What I’m saying is that we CREATED ways and places for our teens to get involved. We didn’t just dump them into the children’s classes. The children’s workshops NEEDED the help because the learning in those workshops was active and up-out-of-your-chair, (–NOT talking heads with children as is so often the misguided model in traditional Sunday School).

<>< Neil MacQueen
www.sundayresources.net/neil
www.sundaysoftware.com

You may be interested in my other articles about church stats, new ministry ideas and my experiments with a new form of youth group. If so… go to the Christian Education Ideas & ADVICE category on this site and scroll down through my posts.

http://sundayresources.net/neil/category/christian-education-ideas-and-advice/

You might also enjoy my “Tribe13 experiment… a different way to do youth group.” http://www.sundaysoftware.com/articles/tribe13/tribe13.htm

Another interesting link: http://www.rethinkingyouthministry.com Lots of thought-provoking blogposts from two youth ministers from the mainline tradition. Thoughts on Teens in Sunday School too.

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8 Responses to The Problem with Teenage Sunday School Class

  1. ld says:

    great great great post! i’m going to forward it right now…!

  2. Lisa Martin says:

    Amen!
    For YEARS we’ve been doing this. And we have people who still lament there is no youth class on Sunday morning. Well, they are helping with the kids, or they are in class with the adults, or practicing with handbells, or setting up as part of the usher team, or, or, or. When they come back from college and come back to church what’s the chance that there will happen to be another youth in youth group that day? Very little. What’s the chance that there will be an adult they formed a relationship with? Pretty good.

    We do still have youth activities, but even these we try and do multi-generationally.

    Plus, I think as a church we need to help parents and youth find ways to be together, not separate them. They already have their own spheres where they don’t interact with each other, at least not healthily. Kids don’t need another activity where they are dropped off and parents go somewhere else.

  3. Roseanna says:

    Neil – I totally agree with almost all of what you are saying. Youth need choices, to be treated as individuals, and be actively engaged in learning and doing. The importance of having them sit through worship so they will want to sit through worship as adults is where we part ways. Until we develop worship services that engage an audience that ranges from children through seniors, I think it is a waste of time and effort to require sitting through a service that leaves teens cold. In our church, once a month during worship, our youth do participate in a youth forum that is for them and run by them with an adult facilitator. It has good attendance and yes, a primary reason for this is their hatred of the worship service. However, their have been some great discussions in those forums with kids really opening up about issues that concern them. We also have them engaged in teaching assistant positions but that does not attract all. We need a menu of options, not always easy to come up with when you are a small church!

  4. Neil says:

    Thanks folks. Great to hear your ideas. Re: “small church”…. I’ve been in all different sizes of church, from 2000 to 200 and now 80. “Small” has its advantages when you want to experiment with change.

    What we will never hear about from the Curriculum-Centric independent & denominational publishers is how to do things so differently as to NOT require their lesson youth plans. Going to take a grassroots revolution connected by things like this here web-thingy. :-)

  5. I really like your idea, Neil, for two reasons. First, it gets the teens involved with adults and, as you said, you learn more while teaching than studying. The other thing I like is your statement that teens SHOULD be in worship – yes, worship may need to change a bit, but more than that, the teens need to learn more about worship – why we do certain things, what symbols mean, the church seasons and why we celebrate them, listening and understanding the meaning of the words of our hymns and songs. That’s why I wrote the book WHAT’S IN WORSHIP? Perhaps on a rotation basis teens can help in preparing for worship and in that way learn about worship and appreciate it better. This would take some real work in coordinating and being sure that no one drops through the cracks and that new teens get involved, but it would probably be worth it.

  6. Neil says:

    This morning after worship, our VBS kids did a program for the whole church, and it featured many of the teens who helped lead that VBS. I completely doubt our teens would have stood up there and done those silly Bible songs if their young VBS buddies had not been right there with them looking up to them. As most of us teachers will confess, being a teacher/leader of kids helps us “get over” our own self-consciousness and unleash our inner learner!

  7. Kathy says:

    We used teens to help the children of our church with their Christmas program. It worked great! The children loved it; the youth were really good models (when they remembered to bring their scripts, etc. – which wasn’t often) and everyone seemed to enjoy it. We began to look at doing something like this on a more permenant basis and the teens immediately vetoed it. They said it felt like babysitting (which it clearly was not – they were actively involved in leading.). “Please don’t make us be with the little kids again,” they begged. Did we miss something?

  8. Neil says:

    Thanks for your comments Kathy. Doesn’t surprise me that a ‘vote’ would end in veto. I have often said teens would give Jesus himself a hard time if he was their teacher! First thing that comes to mind is helping with a Christmas program might be their basis for vetoing. Heck, I myself might veto an opportunity to help with that! Second thing: teens are crowd-followers. The easiest thing for them to do and still look cool to their peers is say “no”. It’s the safe choice. Third thought: servanthood is something that needs to be taught. Tossing the average teen into a Christmas program-herder-helper mode, and one that requires them to be seen in a drama, is different than training/raising-up teens to help teach a children’s Bible study. Fourth thought: it takes time and the right approach for each teen. They are individuals, and at that point in their life where “what they need” can be different from teen to teen. In this respect, working with teens is truly a ministry, which requires mentoring-think instead of ‘group’ think. Hope this helps! <>< Neil

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