In the last post, I wrote about the three mentors I lined up for Sarah. If you missed that post, check it out here.
Enter, Group Dynamics
This post moves from one-on-one relationships to one-on-group relationships. Youth Ministry, or Student Ministry, as some churches call it now. Because we go to a large church, the Student Ministry is pretty big. But it’s organized to meet needs at an individual level. When the kids graduate up into the Student Ministry, they’re put in a small group of either boys or girls of the same grade, with a leader that actually stays with that group until they graduate. How great is that? When it works, the result is a tight-knit group of kids who have essentially grown up together under the leadership of one committed Christian leader. Needless to say, I was excited about the possibilities.
A unique challenge we faced was that we attend church in a different city than where we live. The problem with that is that the kids have no overlap between school friends and church friends. Hear me on this–that gets to be a bigger deal the older kids get. And by the time Sarah was in middle school, it was becoming a very big deal.
At the new parent meeting, I even asked our Student Pastor for advice. He suggested some ways to create that overlap, the main strategy being inviting school friends to church. That’s kind of a hard sell since the church was 20-25 minutes away, but I tried. One friend came once, but that was it. That friendship took a nosedive, anyway. And we could never coordinate our schedules with another friend. Ugh. People are busy, and it was hard to make it happen. But Sarah had a couple of really good friends at church, so I thought maybe it would be okay.
Off to a Promising Start
The new seventh graders got to go do a ropes course as a fun “Welcome to Student Ministry” team-builder. Sarah loved it and had a great time. She liked the leaders, and she liked the girls in her group. She really liked her small group leader, who also took to her right away. If you read the post about the mentors, then you know that the small group leader had a teenage daughter that Sarah also liked a lot. And Sarah’s two best friends at church were in her group.
We were off to a smashing start. The transition went well, and we seemed to be off and running.
But here’s the thing about introverts. They have a few close friends instead of a lot of chummy friends. And that’s fine…unless one of your close friends moves. Which is what happened. Twice. Both of Sarah’s best friends left to find churches closer to their homes, and one eventually moved out of state. This is where the descent began.
Once her two close friends were gone, Sarah detached from her group. She hadn’t gotten close to any of the other girls, even though she liked them fine. And without her besties, she was alone. This may sound crazy since there were other people right there who cared about her. But remember, this is an introvert. Even before any of the social anxiety started to factor in, this ended up being the end of the road.
I saw it coming, actually. Because we were fairly good friends with both girls’ parents, I knew the second girl was likely to leave our church to go find another one. I even mentioned it to the small group leader, hoping she would be proactive in getting more engagement in case Sarah ended up “abandoned.” But her small group leader had some things going on in her own daughter’s life, and she didn’t jump in.
Do I wish she had done more? Sure. But ultimately, Sarah’s spiritual life is in our hands while she’s still at home. It’s our responsibility, not the small group leader’s or the youth pastor’s or anyone else’s. We enlisted those people when we needed them, but when something like this happens, you have to remember that it’s fully on your shoulders as the parents. Everyone else is supporting cast.
As time went on, Sarah became less and less interested in the Student Ministry. She wasn’t connecting with her group, and she wasn’t motivated to deepen the casual friendships she had there. The initial energy of the new group had worn off, and frankly, the group wasn’t doing it for Sarah anymore. A huge blow.
Youth Ministry Mid-Week?
The other major outreach of the Student Ministry happened on Wednesday nights. The format is different than Sunday mornings. It’s a lot of music in a rock concert-y setting. There are speakers, including guest speakers. And there’s a real emphasis on reaching the unchurched kids in the area.
All of that is great and relevant to a lot of kids, just not mine. She hated that atmosphere. She doesn’t respond to the rock concert vibe that a lot of kids love. She wasn’t interested in athletes or other guest speakers. She sure didn’t want to put herself out there and meet new people. And with an emphasis on reaching unchurched kids, the unengaged church kids often felt sidelined. Sarah went to Wednesday night once, and she never went back.
So, neither Sunday morning nor Wednesday night Student Ministry events were reaching my kid. To his credit, when I filled our Student Pastor in, he offered to let Sarah change groups if I thought it would help. But by then, she had written it off and was resistant to going back at all.
Student/Youth ministries reach and grow a lot of kids, and those pastors are doing really hard work. Really hard work. But they just can’t be everything to everyone, and in our case, Sarah was one of them not served by the ministry. All that time she was coming up through the preschool and children’s ministries, I had pictured her over with the youth, worshiping and growing with her friends. I imagined her excited to go off to summer church camp, and coming home tired but spiritually filled. None of that was going to happen.