Youth Sunday: churches’ opportunity, responsibility to engage with students 

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“Philosophically, students and children aren’t the church of tomorrow, but today.” 

Ricky Smith shares the adamant perspective with most, if not all, of his peers working with students. As studies continue to point to a secularization of America, so do church leaders continue to stress the importance of reaching younger generations.  

And, where research may cause some to worry, Smith sees the possibility of The Next Great Awakening. 

“Look through history,” says Smith, state missionary for Student Ministry Groups and Faith Development of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “There are critical hinge points. Take those and consider where our world is today. Right now, we’re positioned for another hinge point, which have historically begun with students. I think we’re on the edge of it and am really excited about our U2019 initiative.” 

Recently, Georgia Baptist leaders revealed U2019 as a concerted effort encouraging churches throughout the state to reach teenagers. Still in its strategy phase, the plan seeks to look at a church’s position in its community and utilize Mission Board resources toward ministry to youth.  

One method through which churches can empower students is holding a Youth Sunday. Typically practiced among smaller churches, it’s a chance for youth to take the lead in a worship service. Conversely, it gives adults a chance to listen and watch. 

“There’s a perception this is an outdated practice, but I think the motives behind holding a Youth Sunday still ring true,” said Smith.  

8 best practices for planning a Youth Sunday 

There is no set observation for a Youth Sunday. However, many tend to fall in late winter or early spring, sometimes in conjunction with a discipleship-focused weekend.  Whenever it’s held, Smith lists eight considerations for a church to make theirs successful.  

  1. Plan six weeks in advance. “Put it on the calendar and prepare.” 
  2. Identify the roles to fill in. “These may be different based on a church’s philosophy of ministry, such as wanting the pastor to preach instead of a student. The size of the church and number of students available will account.” 
  3. Give students input and ownership. “Accept their creativity. It’s important for them to not just be told what to do. There may be a song they want to include not normally sing. Likewise, they may want to sing a song the church knows, but sing it in a different way.” That said … 
  4. Give them acceptable boundaries. “This may concern the timing of the service, theology of what’s being taught, or the music chosen. Give them boundaries, but leave them space to work within them.” 
  5. The week before have them shadow the adult whose job they’ll have. “There’s a training component to this, but it could also trigger a mentoring relationship.” 
  6. Require anyone going onstage to outline their thoughts. “Have them plan out what they’re going to say. Give feedback.” 
  7. Expect quality, and coach them to do their best. “We have a lackadaisical culture, but these kids have potential. They know that in other contexts, such as being part of a sports team, they’re expected to give their best effort. Why should that be any different in church?” 
  8. Gather them in prayer before the service. “It reminds them this isn’t a performance. It’s not about them. It’s a holy moment and we need them to see they’re positioned under God’s authority.” 

Other benefits 

Churches with few or even no youth can still make an impact, says Smith.  

“Churches need to make it a priority to not just invest in students, but their community,” he maintains. “Getting into that community means outreach.” 

It’s equally crucial to develop ways to keep students bridged to the church. 

“Students run the risk of only seeing part of church life,” says Smith. “You don’t want a church within a church, which can happen when a student ministry becomes separated.” 

In other words, support the student ministry, but not to where it becomes its own place. Make it obvious students are an active part of the church’s overall ministry. Even with today’s challenges in student ministry, stresses Smith, those very challenges can easily become opportunities. 

“Every church needs to be aware of the importance of what’s happening in their students’ lives,” he says. “Our society is soaked with secularism, spiritualism, postmodernism, you name it. This is a cultural moment for spiritual formation within our students. 

“The church needs to wake up and engage with that moment.” 

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