Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org

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About Ruth Schapira

I am a Jewish educator and my hope is to spur new ideas through this blog, perhaps to inspire new conversations and motivate change within the Jewish community. I'm interested in making a difference through training, leadership development, and outreach. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

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