“I really hate that after we graduate we have to leave youth ministry.” It is a comment that was shared by a graduating student in June 2008 at a youth ministry event. What the student meant was that she loved youth ministry and was sad that she would have to find other potentially less exciting ways to grow in her faith in the next stage of her life. By less exciting she meant “just going to regular church with the older folks.” This quote caused me to examine the way we disciple children and youth in our ministries. In reflecting I wondered what we have lost in moving from a more integrated church ministry fifty years ago to the age segregated ministry models we work with today.
In the last two years I have become convinced that the segregation of our youth and children into separate ministries is not helping connect the younger generations with the generations that have worked out their faith with fear and trembling. If our church’s (New Life CRC) vision statement is to “touch lives with the transforming love of Jesus” and help people live transformed lives I am not convinced our current age segregated ministry approach will achieve that goal as we move into the future. From my own faith journey and from reflections of the last decade of youth ministry at New Life CRC I am persuaded that connection with older generations is vital in transferring faith from childhood to adulthood.
Those of us who work in children and youth ministry are seeing that our ministries need to work harder at building generational interdependency as a key way of encouraging children and youth to carry their faith beyond graduation. For too long we have assumed that when children and youth hold true to their faith as adults that our age segregated ministries have somehow played an important role in that process. The reality is that youth ministry is not as influential in the process of passing on one’s faith as we sometimes assume it is. We must look at how God is already working in our congregations and transforming the young into lifelong believers.
In decade of youth ministry I have noticed that the young people who have made lifelong commitments to follow Christ have had one of two things in common: either they had connections to a strong interdependent family of faith or they had an extended non- biological family of faith that grafted that person into a similar interdependent community of adults and youth. My reflections on these trends have prompted some changes in how I conduct “youth ministry” in the last two years. Since last year I have been dividing my time and energy along three pillars. I am focusing my work on the areas of:
1. (HOME) primary influencers in the home and school
2. (IGEN) The adult community within our congregation
3. (PEER) Adolescents in their peer environment/culture
A beautiful outworking of the IGEN pillar is an event we call The FEAST. It is a once a month pot luck (I know it’s an archaic concept right? Perhaps enough time has passed and it’s now “cool” to do again?) The potluck follows a food theme or genre (ie: Oct-Mexican Food, Nov-Asian Food, Dec-Christmas diner etc) We invite two adult small groups to join us (they don’t have to bring food because there is more than enough). They intersperse themselves among the tables and join the youth for dinner and discussion. A youth small group is asked to provide a topic on Christian living/Theology (Oct-Forgiveness/Parable of the Prodigal Son, Nov-Church what is the point? etc). They open with scripture, show a video or do a drama and provide a sheet with three discussion questions to generate intergenerational conversation around the tables while dessert is eaten. We ask someone from the adult small group to share their testimony in a way that will spur the next generation on towards faith. We end the night with our youth band leading both young and old in a time of closing worship.
We are four months into “The FEAST” and there is an exciting buzz surrounding this event among young and old. I push the vision every time we do this to remind both young and old why we are doing this “weird mixed ages thing” that happens to be very counter youth culture. There are lots of awkward moments as we learn to trust each other as young and old. When I have adults come to me asking me if they can challenge other adult small groups to connect with youth I know God is doing something.
These pillars and The FEAST function as a continual reminder that the spiritual health of our youth is not solely our responsibility as youth pastors/directors. We are intentionally building a community for our youth that includes people outside of their age specific peer group. We hope and pray that when our students graduate from Youth Ministry they don’t have to wonder where their “church community” went? They now understand that Mr. and Mrs. Vander______ care deeply about them too and even know their name.
I remind myself often that as youth pastors/directors we are simply called to walk alongside those that God has already given the authority to impress truth on our children. Deut 6:7. Israel or (The Christian community/Family/Church) is not exempt from its responsibility to impress truth simply because we live in the era of the youth professional.