The Pros and Cons of a Youth Section
I confess, I was raised in the church. Even from a very young age I’ve always remembered our church having a “youth section”. That is to say I remember having a certain locality of pews that were reserved for teenagers in the youth group. This is were I sat with my friends during church and we did our best to behave. I sat there Sunday nights (A long time ago we had church twice on Sundays, crazy right?!) and Wednesday nights (Our church would meet together for 15 minutes then split into classes on Wednesday nights).
However, on Sunday morning my parents required that all their children would sit together as a family. There were 8 of us (yes, I have 7 siblings and no we weren’t Catholic) so it felt like another smaller youth section, especially when friends would sit with us. But there were times, I can remember feeling left out on those Sunday mornings. I longed to sit with my friends, my youth group.
Now that I’m older and experiencing church as a youth minister, my perspective has changed significantly from the times I felt like a left out teenager on Sunday. By that I don’t mean I’ve come to see the evils of a designated youth section. I mean that I’ve really come to appreciate the teens who sit with their family. Whether it is a family rule or it’s by choice, there’s something right about church being a family experience.
I think having a youth section is a very good thing. I do not think it is a good thing to make every gathering of the church to be sectioned off into specific demographics. If the only church our teens have experienced is with their peers in their immediate age range, then we’ve taught them to ignore their Christian family who don’t fit their age bracket, we’ve dismantled a major part of the discipleship process and negated the importance of the intergenerational church, we’ve taught them to think inwardly and selfishly about how church should fit their own needs and have blinded them to the needs of other demographics in the church. Does having a youth section once a week accomplish all this? Of course it doesn’t. I’m merely advocating we put some thought into our traditions.
To help us think this through, let’s go over some pros and cons of having a youth section in our churches.
- Guests get to see that this church has an active youth group that like each other enough to sit together.
- Members get to see our youth sitting together in unity.
- Teens get to experience church together and bond as a group.
- Seeing one’s peers engaged in worship also encourages others to do the same.
- Perhaps most importantly, it gives our teens who attend without parents (or perhaps any family) in attendance a place to sit and belong without feeling awkward.
- Guests get to see that this church has an active youth group that would prefer to talk to each other than participate in worship and hear a sermon.
- Members get to see our youth being irreverent and/or apathetic.
- Teens sitting together means at times, they’ll distract each other, probably even to the point of distracting anyone who can see or hear them. (Talking, snap-chatting, texting, group messaging, playing games, etc.)
- Seeing one’s peers disengaged from worship encourages others to do the same.
- It can emphasize an identity that is separate from the rest of the church.
So… what? Am I trying to say that we shouldn’t have youth sections? Not at all. I love getting to see my youth group sit together, worship together, take communion together, cheer together for the newly baptized brother/sister in Christ, and be the only section that claps during certain songs. That is awesome! It honestly feeds my soul, sometimes more than the service itself. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that!
However, as a youth minister I confess it also worries me that the perception could be that a teen being a distraction sitting in the youth section becomes a problem for the youth minister and not the responsibility of the parent. I’ve had members come to me to complain about a distracting incident involving a couple teens carrying on a conversation during the sermon that might indicate my leniency. While it is certainly my intent to train and shape the behavior of these young Christians, my immediate reaction tends to be, “Why tell me? Go tell their parents!” Sometimes I can’t focus on the sermon or during communion because I’m keeping an eye on those who are set on being disengaged and distracting because I don’t want to look like an inattentive youth minister.
Conversely, there was a time when I really started to crack down on my youth group about overusing their phones during the Sunday morning sermon. The result? There was a very small youth section the next couple Sundays. It broke my heart to have some of our empty-nesters to come up and ask me “What happened to our youth section? Have they fallen out of love with the church?” But they were still in church. The standards I tried to implement led to our youth sitting with their family or their friend’s family where the standards were less stringent. It’s tough trying to uphold a standard with the youth group when adults in the church don’t honor that same standard and chose to check in on the game, check Facebook, or catch up on some emails. (*Technology usage during church can be beneficial and even uplifting, from using Bible Apps to checking in at your local church on Facebook. That is a topic for a future blog.*)
Familial expectations are key to teaching our teens how to act in church. That’s not to say teens can’t be taught expectations on how to act appropriately or reverently in church while sitting with their youth group. It’s just that it isn’t usually communicated consistently enough. I’ve always respected parents who would witness their child misbehaving or being distracting during church in the youth section and would get up and sit behind them… or even better, walk over to them, grab their arm, and make them come sit by them. How embarrassing! I guarantee your teen would make efforts to never let that happen again.
In summary, youth section are good in my opinion. I will never discourage our teens from sitting together, as long as they aren’t distracting. We should be intentional about encouraging our youth to worship together, listen together, learn together. But we should also be intentional about making them feel apart of the whole church. In the songs we sing Sunday morning, the lessons taught from the pulpit, the selection of communion servers, prayer leaders, and Scripture readers, all of these should be used to show our students that they are not just the future of the church, they are the church right now! More and more studies are coming out indicating that students leave the church between going to college and coming into young adulthood. It’s tough for me not to point a finger at the way we sometimes encourage an “us” vs “them” mentality with our youth groups, we babysit them and feed them milk, we neglect to advocate for intergenerational, discipling relationship and flat out don’t treat them like the church of today so they don’t know how to relate to the church when they leave the comfort of their youth group.
We shouldn’t just see our students sitting together in church, we should see them being the church with the church!
I’m rambling now and getting into other topics, but hopefully this has been a useful exercise for you to think through how we do youth ministry and make you think of ways it can be improved. If you have a though or think I missed some pros or cons of the youth section please comment below!
I have to end with this verse… don’t just read over it because you know it.
1 Timothy 4:12(NIV)
12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.