It seems like I’m receiving more and more messages these days from students and parents letting me know that they won’t be at church. The reasons they give me are sports or band or theater or after-school jobs. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, Sundays and Wednesdays were sacred. Even for those of us who went to public school, our games and performances were rarely scheduled on Sundays, and our practices always ended early on Wednesdays so we could get to church. But today my weekly programs for students are in direct competition with everything else in their lives, and it feels like the church is becoming the underdog.

I’ve always made it a point to never make students feel guilty about missing church because of one of their extra-curricular activities, and I spend a ton of time each year in bleachers and auditoriums cheering them on, but I’m afraid I haven’t done a strong enough job of communicating to students and parents how important it is that they make church a top priority in their lives.

We see quite clearly how teenagers change physically from ages 13 to 18, but studies show that they also experience a huge growth pattern in both intellectual and emotional development during this time. This means that their ability to comprehend the complexities of the Gospel and connect intimately with Christ is developing and deepening throughout these years, so consistent involvement in student ministry programs that disciple students are integral in shaping their spiritual maturity.

I like to compare it to driving a car. The 7th graders who join our student ministry each year are not legally allowed to drive (Praise God!). But over the course of the next six years, they get a permit, practice with their parents, take Driver’s Ed, and eventually get a license that has limitations… but by the time they graduate, students are behind the wheel without restrictions. In much the same way, when students graduate they are behind the wheel of their own faith. In order to be ready for that, they need to take steps along the way just like they did with driving, and our student ministry is designed to help them grow and take ownership of their faith more and more each year.

I recently discussed the issue of priorities with the parents of a student at our church who is a year-round varsity athlete at a large public school in our area. He rarely misses a Sunday or Wednesday night activity at church, and he often goes to great lengths to get there despite a demanding practice schedule. I’d like to think that my teaching is so engaging that he just can’t stand to miss it, but I suspect something else may be going on. Sure enough, his parents told me that they made a family rule that church was going to be a priority. They encourage their kids to be involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities, but they don’t allow those things to take precedence over church.

“We don’t ask ourselves or our kids if we are going,” they told me. “We just assume we are. We tell the kids that we don’t ask, ‘Am I going to first period English today?’ nor do we ask, ‘Am I going to church?’ We just do it, in the desperate hope that our kids will learn to love literature (in the case of English) and Jesus (in the case of church).”

I think what you have there are two parents who understand that discipleship and spiritual growth are a lifelong journey, and they’ve made decisions that push gently against culture in order to give their children an opportunity to grow closer to Christ. There is nothing wrong with sports or band or theater or after-school jobs. In fact, these are all good things that teach students valuable life lessons and encourage them to practice commitment. I participated in all of these things when I was a teenager, and I think I’m better off as an adult because if it. But as pastors and student ministry leaders, we must encourage students and parents alike to understand that being a follower of Christ is not something that is completed the day we pray that prayer or get baptized. That’s only the beginning of what Hebrews 12 calls an endurance race, and consistent involvement in the local church is an important rhythm for all of us to develop as we run with Christ.

So you’ll continue to find me cheering on my students in the bleachers and auditoriums throughout the week, but on Sundays and Wednesdays I’ll be at church with my running shoes on, and I hope they’ll be there too.

Hey, I’m Tim! In the DYM world, I’m probably best known as “the Crowd Charades guy,” and I love it whenever someone shows me a photo of their students playing that game! DYM helped me get through my first few years of youth ministry, and I hope that my resources can be that for other youth workers. More than anything, I love the community I’ve found through DYM.

I live in Nashville, Tennessee with my amazing wife, Becca. She’s a Dove Award-winning graphic designer who helps keep my DYM content looking fresh! We love to travel, listen to music, and eat good pizza that’s way too fancy for a lock-in.

I’d love to hear from you… please say hello on Twitter or Instagram: @timwildsmith

See Tim’s DYM Resources here.