Throughout my youth ministry career, I’ve intentionally taken students to worship in other Christian congregations.
The first time I did this I was working at a multi-ethnic congregation. One spring I canceled our own youth worship service for multiple weeks and instead took my youth to worship somewhere else each week. I intentionally chose congregations that dramatically differed from ours, including a contemporary Christian service entirely in Spanish and a Catholic mass. In each instance, I arranged our visit with someone from that congregation in advance and in the process, also arranged for our youth to have the opportunity to hang out with students from that congregation after worship. Such a gathering created the space for teens to be able to learn from and about one another’s traditions.
More recently, I took my student leadership team to a worship service at Willow Creek Community Church. Having spent three months discussing the importance of welcoming people into our high school ministry, I wanted my students to walk into a church setting with which they were totally unfamiliar and then learn from how they were welcomed there.
Each time I’ve intentionally taken students to worship elsewhere, I’ve had good reasons for doing so. Since youth are naturally curious about Christian traditions that differ from their own, intentionally taking students to worship elsewhere gives them the opportunity to learn about other Christian traditions, find value in them, compare them to their own, and in the process, grow in and solidify their faith.
Despite these valid reasons for taking students from my congregation to worship elsewhere, each time I’ve done so I’ve been asked, “What if they like it better?”
Such a question reeks of fear. It points to how inadequate we in ministry often feel; To how we worry that people will abandon our church in favor of the hipper, cooler ministry down the street; And to how we fear such departures might impact our ministry’s budget or worse still, our jobs.
Believe me. I get that.
And yet, aren’t we all part of the same Christian family? If so, shouldn’t our focus be on building disciples of Jesus and not necessarily adherents to one particular brand of Christianity?
If that’s the case, then maybe it simply doesn’t matter if they like it better.
Maybe what matters is that our youth remain engaged in a church throughout their lives that will help them grow in and live out their faith in Jesus, even if it’s not necessarily our church.
Though I wholeheartedly believe this, it’s also worth noting I’ve never once had a student change churches after visiting another one with me. What I’ve found instead is that when we give students both the permission to explore other traditions as well as the opportunity to do so, they become more – not less – confident in their own faith and tradition.
Jen Bradbury has been in youth ministry for 11 years. She’s the youth director at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in YouthWorker Journal, The Christian Century, and Immerse. She blogs at ymjen.com