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Authenticity, relationship, engagement: Good ministry with young people

If the Rev. Abby Parker Herrera had her way, she'd have paid church staff whose main job responsibility would be to skip church on Sundays.

No, that's not a misprint.

Herrera is a deacon on staff at Servant Church, a United Methodist new church start in Austin, Texas, with a unique congregation: Ninety percent of its members are under 30, in a city with a large young adult population but low young adult church attendance. She also serves as South Central Jurisdiction staff with Young People's Ministries.

"Many young people want to be part of a faith community or have questions about faith, but they don't really have anyone in their midst asking them," she says. "On Sunday mornings, they may be out jogging by the lake. If no church people are out there jogging, too, then there's no time to ask those questions."

Hence the non-churchgoing church staff. The more people she has in the community seeking out and engaging young people, the better. Their whole job is to see what God is doing outside the church.

"There aren't many things to interest young people from the old model that says, ‘We're doing this cool thing. Our doors are open. Please come in.' I think that strategy is less viable as time goes on," she says.

There will always be a cultural divide between generations, and today's rapidly evolving technology means culture changes faster than ever, but the constant in connecting with young people — any people, really — is building quality relationships.

"The big secret of youth ministry is that it's still just ministry," says the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, author and Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. "One of the big mistakes we've made is treating teenagers like a separate species instead of less-experienced members of our own species."

Keys to success?

The reports are hide-your-eyes scary. Fuller Youth Institute's College Transition Project estimates 40 to 50 percent of youth group graduates drift from the faith and the church after high school. A Barna Group study found nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect either permanently or for an extended period from church life after age 15.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. A better approach to young people's ministry still bears fruit.

The keys are authenticity, integrating young people into the entire church body and engaging them in their own pursuits.

Authenticity may be the most important. Without it, you'll lose them right off the bat.

Young people "can tell when you're being real with them, and they can tell when they're being played," says the Rev. Daniel Wilson of Central Online, the online ministry of Central United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina.

Part of that authenticity is to show young people they are valuable members of the whole church. Churches can demonstrate that by including them, not shipping them off to the basement while the adults are in worship.

"That's like outsourcing faith development," says Chris Wilterdink, director of program development for Young People's Ministries at Discipleship Ministries.

When young people are asked to be liturgists, sing in the choir or help with vacation Bible school, they gain a sense of belonging with the entire congregation and are more likely to develop stronger relationships with adult members.

Wilterdink also cites successful programs like reverse mentoring, where older members and younger members trade lessons in skills. In one church, older members taught canning, pickling and jam making to millennials starting backyard gardens and growing their own food. In return, the youth helped the older adults learn to use FaceTime or Skype to talk to their grandchildren.

The Rev. Michael Ratliff, associate general secretary of Young People's Ministries, said he has seen successful efforts at churches without a designated youth or young adult group. They made a point of involving young people in every aspect of the church's ministry.

"It's not about how large your youth group is," Ratliff says. "It's about how your young people are connected to the life of your church."

Go outside the walls

"What if church wasn't a building, a group of people or an experience? What if it was the result of them?"

That question is asked on the website of Rethink Church, the long-running initiative of United Methodist Communications to reach seekers and young people. Since 2009, United Methodists have been asked to consider "doing church" as something that isn't confined by sanctuary walls.

Dean calls that approach "lifestyle evangelism."

Pastors have told her they do better ministry helping young people build a garage than when they meet with them in youth group. "They're sharing meaningful work," she says. "What if the church saw itself as coming alongside young people in ministries they're doing instead of trying to get young people to get on board with ministries the church is already doing?"

Herrera says this approach is key to Servant Church's growth from 15 people to 150 in less than five years.

"Figure out what is interesting to young people, where they are, and spend time in those places. That creates the friendships you need to grow the ministry."

Servant Church reached out with theological discussions at a bar and showing up to help at neighborhood events.

"We earned good street cred in the neighborhood by just showing up to be extra hands and not expecting anything of anyone," she says.

The Rev. Robert Martin, dean and professor of Christian formation and leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., says young people's perception of ministry goes beyond traditional Sunday worship. Young people protesting at a social justice rally may consider themselves to be living out God's call at that moment. Understanding that perspective can benefit the entire congregation.

"They're so ready to do something important that's significant for the community," Martin says. "The great gift of that age group is their head-on plunge into the extremities of the human condition. When we engage them at those extremes, we remember our baptism, that there is something worth living and dying for."

It is easy to make the mistake of defining youth ministry as just field trips and "fun stuff," but, Ratliff says, don't underestimate their spiritual inquisitiveness. When he was a youth pastor in Florida, he took his group on a surfing tour. However, he made sure to combine faith with fun.

"You can't just unload the bus and say, ‘Go have a good time,'" he says. "Do a devotion on the beach, acknowledging who created all this. And process the day at the end of it."

Get creative

So how would one build the ideal pastor for young people? Seminaries have to answer that question every semester.

Above all, Martin says, pastors need to be creative and able to evolve constantly. They need to consider themselves "missional entrepreneurs," always evaluating needs and finding ways to meet them.

Wesley pushes its students to hone their adaptability. They spend two years providing ministry in various settings that require innovation.

"We want to put our students in the most fruitful and effecting context and have them learn that way," Martin says. "Part of their education is to innovate and create new forms of ministry, so our students can't get out of the program without creating something new that has positive effects."

He also wants Wesley students to understand the nature of Christian community and know how to help a group arrive at its own spiritual practice, allowing everyone to take ownership.

A third emphasis at Wesley is teaching future pastors to integrate spirituality throughout every single aspect of ministry, including areas that are more mundane and task-oriented.

Martin says, "They should always be asking, ‘How can we grow closer in communion doing this mundane activity and how can doing it together be a means of grace?'"

Dean says her ideal skill set for a pastor of young people includes being a great communicator, being articulate about their own faith and being willing to get out of the office and into the neighborhood.

She also names patience – not only for the pastor, but also for the congregation and wider church leadership.

"Leaders have to remember that it takes time to reach people who aren't there. You have to grow those friendships. Give that person time and grace to do the ministry; don't expect results in a year," says Herrera.

Wilson's advice for those in youth ministry is to find patience in themselves, especially when they wonder if they're making a difference. Young people don't always grasp advice or lessons immediately. It may be years before youth pastors know if their ministry made any impact.

"You pour everything out into young people, and maybe in five or six years, you get a letter or a phone call thanking you for what you did," he says. "It's one of the hardest parts for me."

It is difficult work, Dean adds, but both vital and exciting.

"I think of youth ministry as the research and development wing of the church," she says. "We learn how to do church in the coming era by learning how to do current ministry with young people."

Joey Butler is multimedia editor for Interpreter magazine and Interpreter OnLine, www.interpretermagazine.org. Originally published by Interpreter magazine, May-June 2015.

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