I found myself sitting in a church pew for the second time in my life at the age of 13. The first time was when I was 5 years old at my mother and baby brother’s funeral. My family life was dysfunctional. But by the grace of God, I ended up in church because my friend felt that I needed Jesus, and her family was willing to help me get to church on a weekly basis.
I broke my friend’s finger in gym class when we were 13 years old. This was the first time I ever experienced grace. Ashley asked me to church even though I had expressed hatred for her. That does not mean that I instantly fit in or was happy there. My personal experience of being a student who attended church without my family was based upon what I was running from, not about Jesus or the people in the Church, at least not at first. I came to church because it was a safe place to be.
The question, then, is this: How can a church connect with a student who may not feel like he or she belongs at that church simply because his or her mom and dad never came to the church; maybe this student’s family has never even seen the inside of a church? I know there were times I felt lost while sitting in church, especially on big church holidays because everybody’s families showed up on those days. Everybody’s but mine.
Is this seat taken?
Nothing makes a teenager feel lonelier than sitting alone in church. You show up to church and the friend you are coming to see is sick or their family took a vacation and you forgot. So there you are, sitting alone. Nothing could make a student feel less wanted. Even as an adult, no one wants to sit alone. I have heard adults say, “I don’t come to church anymore because I was sitting alone.” How much more alienated would a vulnerable teen feel in the same situation?
Romans 12:10-13 reminds us to practice hospitality, which should be practiced by all church family members.
It can seem cliché, but these students need a church family. According to a 2019 article on pewresearch.org, “Almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults.” This rate in the U.S. was the highest among 130 countries studied, which was also triple the global average.
Are some of your hard-to-reach students in this statistic? If so, this is where church family plays an important role in these students’ lives. Church family was how I saw family! They were the only ones that modeled a real, loving family to me when I was growing up.
It’s the small things
It has been over 20 years, and I can still remember the first time someone in the church asked how my softball game went. I had to pause because it wasn’t a typical, “Coming back to church next week?” She said, “I overheard you talking about getting to play catcher last week, so how did it go?” Observing and listening has a greater impact than talking. Her words that day were specific to me and what I cared about. After that one small moment, she was the one I ran to tell when I caught my first foul ball. In today’s world, this might look like asking in-person about something the student posted on a social media platform, not just responding on the platform.
Perception is Reality
When I was told as a teen, “I missed you last week,” it sounded a lot like, “I noticed you were absent,” rather than the loving statement intended. Today’s teens have a multitude of pressures without the obligation of keeping church attendance numbers up. Let’s break the habit of asking unexamined questions; let your loving words have no strings attached.
Don’t give up
Staying connected will not be easy and can seem like it just is not working on some days, but Jesus made the first connection with us. As His followers, we must live Christ’s example and endeavor to connect with students personally. I am eternally grateful to my first connections.