Overinvesting in the young

How can you include young people in all of the life-giving dimensions of your community?

While reviewing the literature on social entrepreneurship, my colleague L. Gregory Jones observed that many successful institutions “overinvest in the young.”

In many situations around the world, people concerned about addressing major needs in the community realize that young people are often keenly perceptive about what needs to be done, and they are bold enough to think that it can be done.

Rather than relying on conventional assumptions that one needs maturity, education, and/or experience, these people and their institutions take risks to empower the young for leadership and raise and spend money on their ideas for experiments.

When American congregations hear “overinvest in the young,” they frequently think of stretching the budget to hire a full-time youth minister or find some other way spend more money on high school students.

Unfortunately, youth ministries are often segregated from the rest of the church. Pouring money into a typical youth program can result in young people being more lavishly entertained and, at the same time, more isolated.

“Overinvesting” means including the young in all of the life-giving dimensions of the community. If worship is at the heart of the community, how can the church engage youth more deeply in corporate worship? If service is at the heart of the community, how can the leaders engage in service alongside the young people?

During the economic challenges following 2008, a friend’s church decided to eliminate the vacant part-time youth minister position. Each of the three ministers accepted responsibility for guiding part of the ministry.

My friend is a 57-year-old pastor. He started teaching the mid-week youth Bible study in his home. He got excited by the questions the teenagers asked. The crowd doubled to 40 as he engaged their questions from scripture. The pastor feels renewed, and the youth are bringing their friends to the discussions.

Overinvesting begins with service, not sales. Where are the great needs in your community? What can you do to respond?

I visited with the leaders of a small membership, mainline congregation last month after they discovered that 100 children in the elementary school next door receive free lunches. The principal said that some of these kids were very hungry after a weekend at home. The church started a “backpack” program to send food each Friday with 20 of the children. They opened up a food pantry and are seeking partners to scale these resources to meet more of the needs of these children and their families.

“Overinvesting” means giving yourself away.

The focus on the young, especially the marginalized young people, should change us and our institutions. It is a growth strategy, not in terms of adding number to the attendance count, but in terms of transforming one’s attitude.