By Jim Vitale
For years we have been driving youth away from our congregations with the best of intentions. This four-part blog series, based on a lecture given at the 2023 Upper Susquehanna Synod Assembly helps us take a look at what we’re doing wrong and offers a framework for how we can do youth ministry differently.
Part IV: So what can we do about it?
In Part III: Storytelling and place-sharing, we explored the ways Bonhoeffer built a community with his youth. Today, we turn to the practical side of things and wonder how we might do the same with our youth.
Now, after reading the last three posts in this series, you’re probably thinking “this is all well and good, Vitale, but how do we do any of this stuff?” Well, here are a few suggestions as a starting point for place-sharing and relationship building with your youth.
Faith Inkubator’s Faith5 is a brilliant resource for this kind of ministry. I have based all of my youth education on this format (and frankly all of my adult education, too). It requires little-to-no advanced preparation and can be extremely powerful. You follow these five steps and it can last hours or just a few minutes:
- Share highs and lows: Here you ask your youth to share one thing in the past week that went well and one thing in the past week that went poorly.
- Read a Bible verse or story: You can pick any passage you want. It can be next Sunday’s lectionary reading, your favorite Bible verse, or whatever you want to choose.
- Talk about how the Bible reading might relate to your highs and lows: Here’s where the storytelling can happen. Here we take what we’ve experienced in the past week and use that to try to find ourselves within the Bible text. Your youth might need some help doing this work.
- Pray for one another’s highs and lows: We don’t just dissect our experiences: we hold them for each other. Here we take seriously each other’s highs and lows and bring them to God in gratitude and petition.
- Bless one another: Grab some water or olive oil and invite your children to dip a finger in it. Then they can partner up with each other, make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead, and say something like: “I bless you in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
If this is all you ever did week after week, you’d be doing your youth a great service.
Another great idea is to start a mentorship program in your congregation. This means pairing your youth up with an adult in the congregation (one to whom they are not related). It is then the adult’s responsibility to reach out and serve as a spiritual mentor to the youth. This doesn’t mean teaching or lecturing but simply being there for the youth. Mentors can invite the youth out for lunch, take them to Knoebels (or whatever amusement park is closest to you), or simply meet for a chat before church. The idea is to have mentors and youth meet monthly, to engage in place-sharing, to remind the youth of his or her value here and now.
Finally, if our focus is to be on relationships rather than education then we must also put aside any preoccupation with numbers. It doesn’t matter how many kids are in your congregation. You only need one to make this work. It’s not about how many kids you impact but how deeply you impact the ones you have. We have to stop using our low numbers as an excuse for not doing faithful, impactful youth ministry. When we have only a couple youth and we say things like, “there are no kids in my congregation,” then we completely devalue the youth who are in our congregation. If you have only one youth in your congregation, then help him or her to feel like the most special kid in the world. Meet with him. Listen to him. Walk with him. Pray with him. Don’t feel like you have to fix his problems. Just be there. Be willing to suffer alongside him like Jesus did. Be ready to rejoice alongside him as God does. Just be there and make sure he knows that you are there for him.
Youth ministry has to be about ministry. Let’s stop trying to “educate” or “entertain” our youth and start trying to connect with them. Let’s dedicate ourselves to building relationships, to seeing our youth has whole persons in need of love and support, to gathering children to the centers of our congregations.
And for God’s sake, let’s stop saying that children are the future of the church.