Creating a Sense of Inclusion Among Teens

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Someone asked me recently about the idea of a teen-oriented festival site. Everyone would be welcome, but the focus would be on teens. When I first entertained this idea I was enthused. Many of our teens feel discouraged about fitting in at church. We need to make them feel more a part. However, after thinking about it, I realized I was falling into a trap.

People in Western Culture, when they want to help a group of people, usually create a program or an activity for them. For example, from time-to-time at church we have youth services, teen Bible studies and teen dances. This type of effort often meets with a popular response. Teens have specific issues they would like to hear addressed in Bible studies. They appreciate the attention they receive at youth services. They tend to like different music than adults, so a teen dance sometimes works.

While these age-specific activities can be fun and helpful, they also separate the teens from the congregation. A principle from a class on group psychotherapy comes to mind: If we want people to feel a part of a group, we must fully include them in the group. When we say it that way it sounds so simple, yet we have violated the principle repeatedly, all with the intention of helping our kids. If we really want them to feel included, we must not only provide age-specific activities for them, we must also include them in the on-going activities of the congregation.

Following the principle of group inclusion, a festival site oriented toward families first, with plenty of whole-family activities and a few teen activities would cause them to feel more included, I believe, than a site focusing on them primarily. Family dances, talent shows, picnics, etc. give teens a sense of belonging but also provide a time for them to talk to others their age. Most of the teens I talk to are usually pleased with the family activities at the Feast, if there are other teens present.

The same principle applies to services. Teens tend to feel more a part if they can play an on-going part in the regular services. Teens can learn to lead songs, give opening and closing prayers, give sermonettes or testimonials, and perform special music—all as a part of weekly services. Including them in the work of preparation for services is also important.

Nor do we have to bring in a “youth pastor” to speak specifically to teens. If they can get something out of the same sermon the adults hear, it encourages them and tells them they also are spiritual beings. Feeling bored and disinterested during services is discouraging to them. To accomplish this, speakers can resolve to make their messages accessible and applicable to the entire audience. Here are a few ideas about how to accomplish this kind of inclusiveness in speaking.

  • Speakers can use an interactive approach some of the time. It helps teens when the questions or issues are presented ahead of time in written form, so they can formulate answers in advance. This style can be used in Bible studies but can also be used during sermons.
  • Speakers can us an inductive style of speaking. Instead of the "tell them what you are going to tell them" approach, speakers can make the sermon more of a "journey of revelation."
  • Questions posed to begin each new phase of the message generate curiosity and interest. The questions cause people to become interactive with the speaker, even though they don’t have to speak.
  • Stories are the most natural way that humans learn. When we work with people in psychotherapy, often we are simply helping them to recreate their own story in words. The human mind stores information in story form: beginning, middle, and end. The first five books of the Bible were passed from Adam to Moses in oral story form. Jesus told stories to make his point, instead of preaching to (or at) people.

Of course, these speaking approaches are less direct and consequently require more creativity, forethought and planning. But then these three qualities also underlie all craft and excellence.

It is much easier to have a special activity for teens than it is to modify activities so that they are helpful to all. However, that more difficult approach can also prove the more helpful to all. In making an effort to help everyone, we fulfill God’s inclusive "law of love." God never leaves anyone out. Neither should we. If we include our teens and children in the weekly work of the congregation as well as focusing on their special needs, we will reap a harvest of faith in them.

One resource that will help your efforts to include young people more effectively is our series on Spiritual Growth and Development. To download or order this series visit LifeResource Ministries.

Bill Jacobs works with suicidal teenagers in a counseling practice and provides LifeResource Ministries, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the young people of the Church develop a relationship with God.


Bill Jacobs

Bill Jacobs is an ordained minister and currently serves two Sabbatarian fellowships. He is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor in New Mexico. Bill and his wife Elaine are the founders of LifeResource Ministries, a ministry providing resources to help Christians become stronger spiritually, more unified in the faith, and more able to pass their faith to their children.

Click here for more posts by Bill Jacobs

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca