The Reverend Julie Graham spent eight years as coordinator of youth and young adult ministries for the Diocese of California. This article was first published as part of Vestry Papers and can now be found in Doing Holy Business: The Best of Vestry Papers edited by Lindsay Hardin Freeman (Church Publishing, 2006).
Inevitably, the call comes. “Do you have someone, fresh out of college, who could do our youth ministry for us? We can pay for seven hours a week. We’d prefer a male (so we can attract boys to our group), and if he plays the guitar that would be even better.”
The dream for every congregation is a sizable youth group with a perky multitalented adult youth leader who is theologically sound and sophisticated. Youth ministry is understood as a Wednesday night meeting of games, songs, and praying teenagers who bring their friends and make plans for the annual ski trip and mission project. The success of youth ministry is measured by how many kids are coming to this Wednesday night gathering.
This is why the call comes seeking that one charismatic person. And this is why the other call comes as well: “Please do not send us more information regarding youth. We do not have enough teenagers coming to our church to have a youth ministry.”
Because this is the common understanding of youth ministry of many adults in church leadership today, most congregations feel grossly inadequate. For congregations who can’t afford to hire staff or don’t have needed adult volunteers, there is the belief, born out of a sense of failure, that youth ministry doesn’t exist in their church.
For those churches who are able to afford the attractive adult youth leader find themselves falling short of realizing the vision of success they have gathered their resources to achieve. Sometimes the kids don’t flock to Wednesday night. Sometimes the youth leader leaves after a year, and the kids go too and the church has to start the ministry all over. Sometimes the teens – who were so involved with the Wednesday night youth ministry – after high school graduation are never seen again.
The church asks, “Why are we failing so miserably in youth ministry?” Inevitably, members blame their size, their socioeconomic status, their culture, their neighborhood, their age, or their rector. All along, the fault lies in the vision.
It is time for a new vision of youth ministry. “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” People: “We will” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 303).
At baptism, the vision is cast of the relationship between the faith community and the newly baptized. The community in all its power is to support this person in his or her life in Christ. The community has pledged to be in relationship in such a way with this person as to increase this person’s faith.
Each time this vow is made, the congregation makes itself the youth minister. Youth ministry is the carrying out of the congregation’s vow made at its children’s baptism.
Here is a more practical model for a congregation to fulfill its baptismal vows. It sees the congregation seeking out and making contact with teenagers at many points in their lives:
- Senior members (women’s guild, men’s group) write birthday cards for the teenagers associated with the church.
- The church prayer group divides up a list of teenagers and prayers for them on a routine basis.
- The adult education team offers regular classes which include “Parenting Teens,” “Talking About God and Sex with Your Teenager,” and “Praying as a Family.”
- The outreach committee plans intergenerational opportunities for service in the community.
- The liturgy team regularly schedules teens to read a lesson or lead the prayers of the people. During Holy Week, teenagers are asked to perform their own interpretation of the Passion on Palm Sunday or Good Friday.
- The pastoral care committee organizes care packages to be made for the teens taking their SATS and for those in college.
- The clergy of four small churches organizes a joint confirmation program, which includes various adults (not parents) as sponsors of the participants in this year of study, search and service and concludes with a mission trip after confirmation.
- A family who owns land in the mountains (or country or on the lake) sponsors a two-week long “family camp” in which all generations live in community and share the cooking, cleaning and discipline of being together in fun and fellowship.
- The hospitality committee organizes a “Friday Night Live” once a month for teens to perform their talents to a live audience of the congregation and community.
- The Sunday School teachers and vestry team up to sponsor an after-school program for the children in the housing projects surround the church, with the teenagers being trained as the tutors.
- The youth advocacy team of another church decides to call each youth (even the ones never seen) every month just to check in.
These are just a few examples of youth ministry that occur when a congregation understands its call to be the youth minister and seeks an integrated relationship with its young people. Youth groups remain part of this vision, but only insofar as they promote that dream of the congregation to support these persons in their life in Christ.