To connect with teenagers, you don't have to act like one.
You do, however, have to understand their world.
For area youth group leaders that means cheering on teens at soccer games, attending band concerts and even tweeting and commenting on Facebook posts.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Teens play bumper pool and pingpong as part of the activities at First Church of Christ’s youth group.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Teens write notes of encouragement to other teens who attend the youth group at First Church of Christ of Altoona. Here, Natalie Russell, 13, puts a note in a friend’s envelope.
(Courtesy photo)Becca Gallace (left) and Jade Petrunak have fun during the Parents' Night Out baby-sitting services provided by the youth group at Providence Presbyterian Church of Altoona.
"Teenagers need friends who aren't afraid to be involved in things they participate in," said Todd Wertman, youth pastor at Grace Bible Church in Hollidaysburg.
About 70 pre-teens and teens meet on Sunday and Wednesday nights at Grace. It's not just Bible studies and pizza parties. The teens take part in football and dodgeball leagues. They enjoy winter activities, including sledding, and give to others through community service events and missions trips.
The group traveled more than a month ago to Charlottesville, N.C., where they helped pack and ship boxes for Operation Christmas Child. They also have gone on mission trips outside the United States.
"I just try to change it up and keep some variety there. That way they don't get used to the same thing," Wertman said.
The teen group at First Church of Christ in Altoona also likes to mix it up.
"We do all kinds of stuff," youth leader Angela Hildebrand said. Hildebrand works with the junior high school kids, while co-leader Mike Tofano works with senior high school students.
Movie nights, game nights, conferences, trips and community service projects are all on the agenda. Within the group, the girls have their own group called "GLO" for Girls Loving Others.
The guys piggy-backed on that and jokingly named themselves "BRO," which doesn't stand for anything.
BRO recently held a late night video game marathon.
"They all brought in Xboxes and hooked them up. They played from 4 to midnight," Hildebrand said.
Angie Wheeler, 14, of Bellwood has been involved with the youth group for three years.
She loves being around friends and "doing fun stuff." But she also realizes she's learning about her faith. "You get really good lessons. It's spiritual," Wheeler said.
She feels the leaders relate well to the teens.
Hildebrand teaches middle school students at Great Commission Schools in Altoona and she has a 15-year-old son, Alex, so she feels immersed in the teen culture.
"I'm around kids all the time. Being around them, you get to know what they think," Hildebrand said.
She and Tofano devise lessons relevant to teens' lives.
"You can see them really living it out in their lives. It makes a difference to have someone to talk to about all the crazy things going on in their lives," Hildebrand said. "You're planting bombs in their lives, and you never know when they'll go off. I think it's a really valuable experience for them."
Community service projects also are big at First Church of Christ. In October, youth group kids skipped lunch one day and donated the money they would have spent on it to "One Meal One Day," a program which helps feed hungry kids. They raised $400.
The group also has raised about $4,000 for a $4,800 well to be drilled in an African community. During December, the kids donated on an Advent calendar Hildebrand had made.
Each day the teens had to donate certain amounts for various items in their house: 10 cents for every faucet, 75 cents for every vehicle, 10 cents for every pair of jeans.
The teen group at Providence Presbyterian Church in Altoona has worked in soup kitchens in Altoona and Washington, D.C., rehabilitated houses in Pittsburgh and provided free baby-sitting services for "Parents Night Out."
Betsy Gallace of Altoona Community appreciates the service projects. Her 17-year-old son Don has taking part in activities since seventh grade.
"He's done so many things. They do projects here and go on missions trips," she said.
Don has developed friendships and his faith has blossomed, Gallace said.
"There's a good group of teenagers that all group up together. They're not ashamed about their religion. They're really open about it. They don't feel embarrassed that they're good Christians," Gallace said.
Youth group leaders try to support and guide teen's spiritual lives by entering their world.
Brigitte Donlan, Providence Presbyterian youth group leader for six years, feels she understands the teens because she's become a part of their lives.
Donlan, who has a toddler and is pregnant with her second child, has decided to step down as the main youth group leader, but plans to stay involved.
"It's definitely a part of our lives. We'd have a giant hole if we didn't help," said Donlan, whose husband, Rob, lends her a hand.
Teens provide a vital part of the church, said Pastor Brad Windlan, small groups pastor at First Church of Christ.
"Every generation is important and essential and they represent that next generation," he said. "But I know what they would say. They are the church. They are this generation of the church. They're essential on that personal level of who they are.
"Our mission here is to bless and to minister to the whole family. Teens are a major part of that."