Students Freak Out When I Describe Active Church Membership

Proclaiming the good news in word and deed,

taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,

lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,

studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,

supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,

demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,

responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,

living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social, relationships of life,

working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment,

caring for God’s creation,

participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and

reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.

This is how “the ministry of members” is described in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order. I say “described,” because whenever I share this with Confirmation youth, their eyes go wide. A moment of panic sets in and you can almost hear the screaming question in their heads, a church version of “Is this going to be on the test?!”

This is a description, not a prescription. This isn’t a checklist.

Also, it matters and you should take it seriously.

You are a member of the church already, I explain. If you were baptized as an infant, then you are a Baptized Member of the church. Confirmation invites you to profess faith for yourself and become an Active Member. The word “Active” trips some students up, because they’re plenty active already and they’re not exactly casting about for more time commitments.

Their question is most often reduced to this: can I be an Active Member and not come to church?


Kind of.

Of the 12 descriptors of Active Membership above, only two of them really require you to come to church. It is difficult to take part in the common life and worship of a congregation if you’re not there, although live streamed worship services, emailed devotional guides, and even Bible studies conducted by video conference all open new possibilities. Participating in governance is probably the hardest to do remotely.

Still, the thing I want students to take away is that our conception of church membership has more to do with a quality of life in the world than it does with institutional attendance requirements.

That is much harder to measure, though.


The Urgency of The College Application

The students I have been working with since 2008 are brilliant. They achieve things academically by the 8th grade that I never got to in high school. They spend weeks, even months, of their summer in Greece or Japan or Spain. They speak a second language. They don’t just join programs at school, they invent them. They volunteer (man do they volunteer). And all this while playing on a travel soccer team and competing in the Science Olympiad and winning debate tournaments.

There is an urgent driver of much of this achievement: the college application.

I can’t count the times a student or a parent has explained one of their activities in these terms. An 8th grader once told me, as I complimented her for volunteering at the community Fourth of July festival, that she was only doing it because her grade in math wasn’t very good, so she needed something on her college application to compensate. This student had yet to set foot in her high school.

Some students have shared that this urgency comes from their teachers. I’ve seen some come from parents. And plenty of it these youth place it upon themselves, as their peers all compete to position themselves for elite schools. There seems to me to be no greater animating force in the lives of the youth I work with than the strength of their college application.

So it should come as no surprise that youth decide about church activities through a college application filter. Mission trips are pursued or passed over on this criteria. Service projects are weighed in terms of service hour quotas. Even church leadership positions can be prized for their value to the application. None of these church activities are designed to promote improved college admissions, of course, but many of them can be used for that purpose.

Is that terrible? Is there a purer purpose behind the mission trip that is thwarted by the forward-looking motives of the 10th grader who signs up? Probably not. Still, I am resisting the obvious logic of surrendering to the rules of the college application in scheduling and designing church mission activities. That is a battle we simply won’t win. In fact, to fight that battle is to lose.


Signing Up Is Not Enrolling

Signing up is not the same thing as enrolling. Enrolling takes time and thought. Signing up takes only the swipe of a pen or the click of a button.

Perhaps part of the solution to backing out is asking for more on the front end than signing up. Because if signing up is easy, then so is backing out. Enrolling is more involved. For that you have to show up, maybe stand in a line, put some skin in the game, be introduced to the other enrolees. Maybe the form is paper and not a website. Maybe you have to mail or carry it in. Maybe the deadline is fixed, not flexible.

For some things, sure, signing up is all you need. Sign people up for a pot luck or a shift at the fundraiser. That works, and Signup Genius is invaluable. But for a retreat? A mission trip? Those are bigger commitments. You want people enrolled more than simply signed up for those. Maybe it’s worth asking people to do a little bit more.

Does Backing Down Enable Backing Out?

I have steadfastly maintained that church should be the thing that backs down in the lives of busy teenagers and that it is contrary to our purpose to get competitive with soccer and band camp in our youth ministry programming choices. Church participation really is an end in itself. Growing together in community–learning, serving, caring–is the point. You don’t advance that cause with a punitive attendance policy.

Youth will sign up for other things over church retreats and mission trips. I get that. I’m not mad about it. I’ll back down.

The instance that is harder to back down from, though, is the backing out. I’ve seen it happen more than once that the student who has already committed to the retreat gets invited to something else and so changes her mind and backs out.

What then?

Does backing down enable backing out?

I Wonder . . .

I wonder which part of this story is your favorite part.

I wonder which part of this story is the most important part.

I wonder which where you are in this story, which part is about you.

I wonder if we could take any part of this story away and still have all the story we need.

These four “wondering questions” are the exclusive discussion prompts for most of the lessons in Godly Play, a curriculum of Bible lessons for young children that I taught to preschoolers almost every week for several years. They are so useful that I have employed them in multiple settings and diverse populations of youth and adults. I’m doing it again this weekend.

One of the most fulfilling worship leadership experiences I ever had was a service to introduce Godly Play to our congregation. The teachers and I told a story from Genesis in which the teachers moved around the chancel like the implements from the curriculum. Then the four of them preached, each one addressing one of the “wondering” prompts. You could do a lot worse than that for a sermon preparation guide.

I taught my last Godly Play lesson in 2015. Maybe I’ll return to it someday. In the meantime I’m using its wondering questions liberally.


They Got You

You got took. They tricked you, fooled you, distracted and deceived you (the police report will actually charge them with (“deceptive practice”).

You were a mark. You fell for it. They got you.

Its not entirely about what they stole, is it? The credit card is cancelled with a single call, and you will be out no money. A new card will arrive in a few days.

No, it’s not just about the item. It’s about you. Thieves saw in you someone they could exploit, and they were right.

Two things about this.

1. Now you know. You’ve seen this scheme and will recognize it next time. Congratulations. You learned something.

2. Being a mark is not the worst thing you can be. They got you because they hijacked your desire to be perceived by strangers as non-threatening and polite. You don’t have to stop being that way just because this group of tricksters got one over on you this time.

The world needs people who project openness over hostility more than it needs people who will never be taken.

The Way Things Go Now

You’re in charge now. Things go the way you want them to go.

Do you know the way you want them to go?

And what is that based on, the way you want things to go? The way the experts say they should go? The way you made them go before, when you were in charge somewhere else? The way your mentor made them go? You don’t have to say, but you’ll be better off if you know why you want things to go the way you want them to go.

Of course, there is always the option to keep them going the way they’re going now, here. Just because you’re in charge and can change the way things go doesn’t mean you should. Some things are going just fine. Good leaders will recognize those things and leave them alone.

Making things go the way you want them to go is costly. But you’re in charge; you have capital to spend. Spend it wisely.

Ministry With Youth Who Have A Lot To Do Is Hard, But In A Good Way

I have a student who will miss multiple dates related to Confirmation in the coming months due to conflicts with other activities she is involved in. First there is a concert with the local youth symphony. Then there is a national debate tournament. Finally, there is citywide Model United Nations.

It is a common enough complaint that youth are over-scheduled, but read the previous three sentences again and tell me which one of those opportunities you would tell a student to pass up in deference to church. Some of us are in ministry with youth who have a lot to do because their families and their schools and their communities provide them with an abundance of enriching opportunities. Also, those students are amazing.

If your view of this situation is that it’s a problem for youth ministry, you’re in the wrong field.

Ministry with youth who have a lot to do is not the same as ministry with youth with not a lot to do. It’s harder. Not simply because youth group and the spring retreat are competing for time, but also because the value proposition of church is less explicit than the value proposition of Model UN. That church is a community of belonging where young people are known and valued because they are children of God and not because they can play the oboe is powerful and life-changing, but it doesn’t exactly sell tickets. Participation is entirely elective. There is no First Chair or Captain or MVP.

A parent once asked me to create an officer structure for the youth group so that his son could list it on his college application. I don’t think I will ever do that.

Church is the people who call you by name and embrace you whenever you appear, and no less warmly for your having missed the last three weeks conquering the world.



Showing Up Without Signing Up

The signup has become immeasurably important in my youth ministry. Volumes of communication to youth and parents are spent urging them to sign up for things on Signup Genius or through our church website.


You plan around the students who sign up, and while you should most definitely build in a contingency for attrition, the ones who don’t show, you also need to have a strategy for the opposite, the students who show up but didn’t sign up.

That feels like where a lot of fruitful ministry happens, the space where a young person showed up and said, “I’m here to be part of this thing, though I didn’t sign up.”

I don’t ever want to be irritated about a student showing up, even if they didn’t sign up.

Does Everything in Youth Ministry Happen Only Once?

Our youth ministry calendar this year has a bunch of new stuff on it. We added retreats and trips that we’d never done before, based mostly on a perception that, while regular weekly commits abound in our students’ lives, opportunities to get away overnight (or several nights) with peers are less frequent.

Each of these overnight events draws a unique community that I am certain will never be together again in exactly that configuration. Of course, that is increasingly true of the weekly gathering, too; attendance patterns no longer support a regular, repeatable community of participants week after week. This week’s community won’t be back again.

Perhaps this sounds dramatic, but it feels like a good time to start thinking of every group gathering we schedule as a one-off where we don’t assume a level of familiarity between students and we don’t expect facility with the habits and ideas we’re trying to teach.

This isn’t bad. It would be true of something brand new.