It is spring in an almost post-pandemic year and high school graduation in our county is tomorrow. We have received graduation notifications in the mail, invitations to family-hosted celebrations, and some neighbors have the now common-place signs in their yards stating that a graduate is in the house. Social media feeds are full of memory photos including many reenactments of those "first day of school" pics from kindergarten with the now adult-looking child holding a sign that says "last day of school." In our county, public graduation ceremonies are back on, without masks even. It is almost like it used to be prior to COVID-19.
Churches are having their annual high school graduate recognition time. For some churches this involves having the students march down to the stage in their respective caps and gowns. A brief introduction will be made to the congregation stating who the student is, from which local school he/she is a graduate, and sometimes future plans are shared as well. It is a nice stroll down memory lane for those in the church who actually know the students.
What To Do For Graduates At Church?
Most often the church will acknowledge the achievement of graduating high school. Then a gift is given to the students. Many times the gift is a book that, to be honest, we know will never be read. Many students will just pack the gift in the box with the rest of their "high school memories." There was a season when our church would give a compilation cassette tape or CD (FYI - cassette tapes were small plastic reels of magnetic tape containing recordings of music. CDs were round, reflective discs that could hold music, videos, and data. These were played in the dashboard audio systems of Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs or on the Gateway personal computer in the home - if said computer had a CD-ROM drive. For information on Oldsmobile, Pontiac, or Gateway, search the items on Google.) of Christian music to graduates.
It is a special day for the students. It is likely more monumental and special for the parents of the students.
Pastors and church leaders often struggle with what to do for high school graduates, especially with the understanding that the Lord's Day worship gathering is to be just that, a focus on the Lord. Holidays and special events (Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day Weekend, Independence Day, Arbor Day, etc.) often create great confusion, and anger groups of church members when what is expected on a particular Sunday morning is seemingly ignored or not prioritized.
So, what do you do with high school graduates on the Lord's Day?
If you take the entire service honoring graduates is that not a problem for a church commanded to honor God alone?
If the focus is on the accomplishments of the seventeen and eighteen-year-olds in your fellowship, is that wrong?
If you totally ignore the fact that some in your fellowship have just graduated from high school is that ignoring the context of your culture?
What about those students who really never come to church, but their parents or grandparents do? So, on high school graduate recognition Sunday there is a teenager standing before the congregation who is not only not a part of the fellowship, but is unknown to most but those who are related to him? Does that graduate get the "free gift" too?
What about students who joined the church and attended worship, but never attended any student ministry activities, events, or trips? It is often the student pastor leading the recognition. It is awkward, but does that student count? Or...should that student count more because she was part of the church and not just part of the student ministry?
Over The Years, I Have Learned...
After thirty-plus years in full-time pastoral ministry here is what I have discovered and recommend regarding high school graduation and church:
- If you recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
- If you do not recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
- I don't believe it is wrong to recognize high school graduates. You may disagree, but I'm writing this blog and that is my opinion.
- Graduates are not excited about the gift the church gives them (for the most part.)
- Just because most graduates may not read the gift book you give them does not mean you should stop giving books. Books last. Books are good. Good books are great. If you give them a book, don't waste money on a "Promises for the Graduate" book, but give them one that speaks of identity in Christ, life in Christ, proper doctrine, and truth. Self-help books (even Christianized ones) are not worth it. They may not read it...but they may and it is best to offer a timeless work than a pop-Christian-psychology-you-have-what-it-takes manual. Oh, and even if they have a Bible, a new Bible still a good gift. I actually still have the Bible my church gave me in 1986 when I stood in front of our congregation as a graduating senior. Thanks Davis Boulevard Baptist Church (now CrossMark Church.)
- No graduate should be given the microphone and asked "What do you plan to do for the rest of your life now that you are an adult?" Don't do this to a student even if they have thirty honor ribbons and everyone knows they've been accepted to the most prestigious university around. Why? Because there are likely students standing next to them who are just really glad they have graduated high school and are unsure of their next steps. It is a recognition for all graduates, not just the valedictorian-level students. The school's awards ceremony is the place for acknowledging those academic accomplishments.
- You will have students show up for graduate recognition that you cannot ever remember seeing before. So, if you have a gift for others...have one for them. This "who gets recognized" issue is no hill to die on.
- Don't make participation in youth ministry activities and events the litmus test for being recognized on Sunday.
- Regarding the sermon - preach the gospel. This should be understood, but Sunday's sermon should not sound like the secular "Believe in yourself" or "Follow your heart" drivel offered at many commencements. In fact, if you are preaching through a series, stay in the series. It is a clear reminder that while you are acknowledging the accomplishments of your now young adults, the church gathered is focusing on God's teaching from God's Word for the day (just as you do every Lord's Day.)
- If you are recognizing graduates do so as a church, not as a student ministry.
- Consider a post-service or pre-service fellowship with graduates and their families. Or, do as we did for years, have a drop-in graduate recognition party for all your graduates. This will provide space and fellowship for all your graduates and that way when families are calling the church to reserve the fellowship hall for their graduate's party, you can say "We do this for all our graduates on ______ day. You're welcome to participate." It will keep church members from trying to hit every party in town and will provide a celebration for those students whose parents may not schedule such an event. And...for families who want their own...they will do it anyway.
The Big Shift for Graduates & Parents - The Family Blessing
Moving to a family equipping ministry as a church has been challenging, yet fulfilling. I have written about this philosophy of ministry prior. You can read about it here.
Since the church is helping parents, grandparents, and guardians of children and teenagers to be the point of the spear when it comes to discipleship, we believe it is imperative that our recognition of graduates moves beyond the traditional presentation of students and a gift from the church during a worship service.
The family blessing is a milestone that cannot be replaced by a church event. The words of a loving parent (or guardian) spoken publicly to a young man or woman will be remembered much longer than any words spoken by whomever was chosen to give a speech at the high school graduation. The blessing is biblical. It is intentional. It is public. It is spoken. It is right and holy.
And...for many parents, it is frightening.
It is most frightening for those who fear standing in front of or speaking in front of a crowd. We understand that. In those cases, we stand with the parents, we provide mentors, we even will read the blessing of the parents upon their child for them if needed.
We will see this play out on Sunday here at our church.
We have just a few graduating seniors this year, but they will be recognized. During the early part of our worship service, these students will be brought to the front of the congregation (wearing their respective graduation regalia.) They will be introduced to the congregation. Words of encouragement and challenge will be offered by the pastor or student pastor. Then, their parents (or guardians/mentors) will come stand with them. The microphone will be given to the parent and he/she will speak a blessing upon their now young adult child before the fellowship of believers.
This is a milestone.
Some may call it a rite of passage, but it is more than that. It is the loving parent's words of blessing upon a child who is stepping into a new chapter of life.
It will not be easy for all. Some parents may struggle with finding the words. In some cases, the wounds between parent and child make this even more difficult. Yet, even then, we believe there is power in the biblical blessing within the fellowship of the redeemed. Since we are intent on equipping parents, we help them with this. We make this step doable. We are equipping parents to bless their child even if they have never experienced this in their own lives.
And with this...an added on recognition to a worship service becomes a time of redemption, calling, blessing, challenge, and will shift from being solely about the graduate and more about God and all that he desires for the future of this person.
To God be the glory, may we do this well.