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How to Create a Congregational Context in which Teens Thrive

What young adults are looking for is a Christian community in which "you can smell Jesus." That quote comes from a 20-something researcher for the Barna Group who made the declaration to a group of church people seeking to understand her age group, the Millennial generation. It was repeated by Syd Hielema, Chaplain and Professor of Youth Ministry, in a 1-hour presentation he made at the 2014 Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's Worship Symposium. That yearning, he continued, is larger than the Millennials; it is something all of us want, and at its heart it is a search for a "large enough" conception of grace, for a sense of grace that can sustain us on a journey of continual transformation during which we frequently "smell" the presence of Jesus at work in our lives. "The point is," he says, "grace transforms us and makes us contagious with something of the heart of Jesus." To promote individual experiences with grace, a church needs a culture of grace; a culture that needs to be nurtured so that whenever two or more people come together, an atmosphere is formed that is more than the natures of the individuals who have gathered. Clergy need to "pastor the culture" of congregations to promote repentance, grace, respect, a grateful hunger to be who Jesus wants us to be, and humility: these need to be what people inhale at church. To provide a culture of grace for its young adults, Hielema said, churches have to address a lot of "weak assumptions" about youth that often flow from a church's culture of anxiety about youth and about the church's future. Creating a church context in which youth can thrive requires examining assumptions, gently challenging them, and building up an alternative, stronger set of assumptions about the Christian life, about what constitutes a community of faith, and about teens. After exploring the foundational role of assumptions in congregations, at about minute 40 Hielema addressed some of the assumptions congregations have about youth and youth spirituality and discussed ways to create healthier congregational climates for teens. For more on youth spirituality, see these feature articles, "Teenage Religiosity: Widely Practiced, Poorly Understood," and "7 Traits of Churches that Successfully Attract Young Adults." For more insight into the religious and social lives of youth, see "Best Resources for Youth Research." Also consider "Best Resources on Youth and Youth Programming for Congregations." 

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