It may sound surprising, but not all youth ministers get excited about the idea of Youth Sunday. In fact many youth leaders are so opposed that they won’t even do one. What could be so bad about putting youth in charge of a Sunday worship service and equipping them to take leadership roles typically occupied by adults? Well many would say that “every Sunday is youth Sunday,” and that the best practice is to fully integrate young people in the life and ministry of the church every week. That’s certainly hard to argue. So what to do?
My home parish recently had a Youth Sunday service, and it renewed my faith in this much maligned staple of youth ministry. Let me tell you why I think it will have lasting impacts on our youth and our church. Our church just finished confirmation. And when the confirmands were asked what they wanted to do next, they all said they wanted to try a Youth Sunday service. But here’s where it gets good. They wanted to lead every part of the liturgy. Not just choose songs and do readings. They wanted to do the jobs we don’t typically give away. One young person wanted to be the priest! Another wanted to be deacon! They wanted to fill all the roles, not just a select few.
And the best part is that our priest, deacon, and youth minister didn’t hesitate. They simply said yes. And then got busy figuring out how to support our youth and their desire to lead. The group decided it would work well to have adults serve alongside the youth. So any time a young person was leading, there was an adult standing nearby who normally performed that role. Not to monitor or supervise, but simply to support and encourage.
The most powerful moment for me occurred when one of our teens said the absolution of sins. Normally, that’s when the priest pronounces to the congregation that our sins are forgiven after saying the confession. I’ve never heard a non-ordained person say those words in church. In that moment the priest speaks on God’s behalf, proclaiming one of the most important messages we receive in church, that we are forgiven. And this particular Sunday a thirteen year old girl was equipped, empowered, and entrusted to give that message. As she spoke the words, our priest stood beside her and made the sign of the cross over the congregation.
I think our Youth Sunday sent some powerful messages. The experience told our young people, “You can do this. We trust you, and we need you.” I think it reminded our adult leaders that one of the most important things they do is to pass on, to transfer, and to train others for ministry. And I believe the entire congregation realized that our young people are the heart of who we are as a church. They are us, and we are them. Their potential is limitless, and all we have to do is believe in them, equip them, and get out of the way. The next step is to try and do it a little more each Sunday. I think we can.
Last year our church’s confirmation class experienced a minor conflict that is probably all too familiar. One of the teenagers in the group was unable to attend the overnight confirmation retreat because he had an important hockey game. This of course posed the question of what to do. Reschedule the retreat? Press on without him and hope he could somehow “make up” the experience? Well, the priest, who happens to be my beautiful wife, had a simple and inspired idea. “What if we all just went to the hockey game?” After some discussion, everyone agreed it was the best option. And the entire confirmation class, adult mentors and all went to the hockey rink to watch the game.
As you might imagine this was a very powerful experience for everyone involved. The young hockey player, felt loved and included. He practically had his own cheering section rooting him on. And his family felt the support too. Having the community gather to encourage and affirm their son communicated that their church was much larger than it’s own walls.
Perhaps the best part of this story is that my brilliant wife didn’t miss the opportunity for some Christian formation. While the confirmation group sat in the stands watching the game, she asked them, “Where do you see God right now in this experience?” The young confirmands thought and began to share that they saw God in the cheers of the crowd, the teamwork on display, and the love of family members rooting on various players. And then one young man said something surprising. He said, “God is in the puck!” Everyone was slightly taken back, but when my wife asked him to say more, he explained that the puck wasn’t on anyone’s side and allowed everyone to play. God was right there at the center of everything. The saying “God is in the puck” became a mantra for the group for the rest of their time in confirmation.
For me this story is emblematic of youth ministry in our present context. I hear so often that young people are busy, over scheduled, over programmed, etc. And it’s true. They are. I also hear the despair that families don’t make church a “priority” in the same way they used to and that “regular church attendance” isn’t so regular these days. Or the annoyance that certain sports have games and tournaments on Sundays, forcing families and young people to choose between participating in these activities or coming to church or youth group.
These realities leave many churches and leaders feeling perplexed and discouraged about ministry with young people. They wonder what to do or what can even be done. I think this story points the way. What if we all just went to the hockey game? I think that not only would we show our young people in various activities that we love and support them. I think we would also find that God is right there in the middle of it all, inviting us to a community even larger and more powerful than we thought it could be.
When I visit congregations and tell leaders about the cool programs and events we offer for youth in the Diocese of Chicago, I’m always met with enthusiasm. Leaders, parents, and clergy are supportive and excited by what diocesan youth programs provide for faith formation and connection to the wider Church. And then the practical question arises, “How do we get youth from our parish to attend these events if they’ve never been to one before?” The reality is that there are some barriers to going to events like these for the first time. And most leaders don’t need to be convinced that these programs are valuable. They just want to know, “How do we get them to go?”
I think this is a really valid question and one that I know can be challenging. There are probably many aspects involved, but I’d like to start with simply making a good invitation and what that might look like. The way we get anyone to try something usually starts there. And some invitations are just more, well, inviting. Consider this one for example:
“I heard about this great weekend retreat for teenagers. It sounds fun. I think you should go.”
This isn’t bad, but this kind of invitation just doesn’t compel us. We’re probably more likely to file the information away for further reference than we are to act. Why is that? Let’s try it a different way and see if we can improve. How about this?
“There is a youth retreat coming up in a few months. I went to it last year, and I loved it. I think you’d love it too. Want to go with me?”
I think most of us find this more inviting. And that makes sense because “you should go” isn’t really an invitation. It’s more of a suggestion. On the other hand “do you want to go with me” sounds so much more attractive. It’s wrapped up with relationship, connection, and safety. And it doesn’t hurt that our friend “went last year.” First hand experience always feels more reliable.
I think a great place for adults to start would be attending a diocesan youth event as a chaperone or volunteer. Or even make arrangements to visit for part of an event. The fact that you’ve “already been” will lend credibility and probably add excitement to the invitation.
But even if you’re not able to visit an event before telling youth about it, the second part is still what is crucial. Do you want to come with me? Wouldn’t we all rather go into a new situation with someone we know rather than by ourselves?
This week I’m attending the Forma conference in Houston for those who work in Christian formation. A running theme so far has been the importance of tending our own faith and being formed ourselves before we attempt to help anyone else on their faith journey. I think this is very wise, and I’ve believed for some time that “You can’t give away what you don’t have” when you’re in ministry. Earlier in the week, I was also blessed to attend the pre-conference at Camp Allen in Navasota. I had time to walk around the property and enjoy some solitude by the lake. I grew up in Texas and found myself somewhat overcome by memory. I spent a good deal of time reflecting, meditating and praying to try and hear what all these memories were trying to say. I wound up writing a poem about it. I offer it here and hope it can encourage others to pray and listen for God’s still, small voice, that speaks love into our hearts; healing, life-giving, redeeming love that makes it possible for us to love others and invite them to experience God’s love.
This familiar landscape washes over me
And I’m submerged in memory
I can’t resist
So I let myself sink
I’m a boy, then a man, then a boy again
I sit on my grandmother’s porch swing
Gently pushing myself with my foot
Against the green, wooden flooring
Feeling the ridges and warped boards under my toes
Looking out over fields where cattle graze lazily in the late afternoon sun
Where mesquite trees line the fence rows like shepherds
And the light whispers on the fields, assuring me that God is
I stand in a classroom of teens trying to explain
Elizabethan English and iambic pentameter
A family feud between two households
Two star-crossed lovers
And what it means to love and be loved
It’s the Fourth of July and my aunt is taking us swimming
The sands give beneath my feet as I enter the water
My eight year old limbs are cradled by the Brazos
And somehow I know that the river accepts me
She delights in my presence, giving me my first baptism
When I surface, I see
All these moments are tied to this moment
Sitting by a lake, near the place of my birth
With the sun, the grass, the trees, and the water
Like old friends
As a follow up to a recent post, I asked Mae, one of our youth who attended Diocesan Convention as a delegate, to write a short reflection on her participation in this event. Here is what she had to say:
“I was honored to be able to participate at Diocesan Convention as a Youth Delegate. I learned so much over the course of two days. I discovered how business meetings work. I learned they can actually be quite interesting, and that candy (thoughtfully provided by your youth minister) can make any long meeting better. I found how important it was to include new youth. Being a seasoned youth member with many years of dioocesan camp and other activities under my belt, it’s easy to forget how it feels not to know anybody. I remembered the necessity to catch up with old friends and fellow campers who I hadn’t seen since last summer. I experienced the comfort of everyone just letting go on the dance floor, and that same comfort as I found the opportunity to have deep conversations with people I love. While I hadn’t attended Convention since I was nine, it somehow felt like coming home. I’m so glad I was able to go to Diocesan Convention this year, and I’m thankful for my church family that made it so meaningful.”
Mae along with eleven other youth delegates joined the 700 leaders from our diocese that attended this important annual event to learn more about sharing our stories, welcoming strangers, and getting outside the doors of our churches to share God’s love. She represented her peers to vote on important issues facing the mission and ministry of the 127 churches in our diocese. All of our youth delegates made a significant impact through their presence and leadership. And it would seem that the experience left an imprint on them as well. Let’s keep this in mind and remember to include young people in leadership whenever and wherever we can in the life of the church.
For years I’ve been fascinated by the US Navy SEALs. Undoubtedly, most are familiar with this elite group of warriors and some of their high profile missions. But you’re probably already asking “What could these gun toting commandos possibly have to do with youth ministry?” Hang with me.
Any investigation of the Navy SEALs will uncover the intense focus this group places on teamwork, training, and excellence under pressure. Navy SEAL units are very intentionally called “Teams” rather than squads or platoons. And their training places utmost importance on each soldier working for the good of the team rather than the individual. One training exercise called “gear soup” puts all of the team’s gear in a small pool. Disorganized, scattered, and soaking wet, all soldiers have to retrieve their gear and prepare for their team’s mission under a time limit. Soldiers who look for their own gear first wind up doing extra PT to remind them to work for the good of the team.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the SEALs is their ongoing dedication to training. In fact they would say that a SEAL never stops training. This is notable considering how difficult it is to become a SEAL in the first place. But even after a SEAL earns their Trident pin, they continue training throughout their career, adding skills and competencies. Not to mention continued physical training to keep their bodies in top condition. SEALs are incredible examples of lifelong learners. And this comes from their teamwork ethic. They constantly want to improve so they can be a better asset to the team!
The best known trait of the SEALs may be the way they are expected to perform in extreme circumstances. During training SEAL candidates are constantly ordered to get “wet and sandy,” which involves a long run across a beach, a quick dip in cold ocean water, a roll in the sand, and a long run back to formation. The soldiers complete the rest of the day’s training “wet and sandy.” The reason being that the instructors want the soldiers to learn how to perform at their best even when they are uncomfortable.
I think all three of these traits are applicable to youth ministry. What do you think? How can we be more committed to teamwork, training, and excellence in our ministries with young people?
My friend Lyle Griner who is the Director of Peer Ministry likes to say “If youth aren’t leading, they are leaving.” And I’m mindful of this as I prepare to attend the 177th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago this weekend. Clergy and Lay Leaders from 127 congregations will gather to worship, fellowship, hear from keynote speaker Sara Miles, attend workshops, network, share some meals, dance, and vote on important business affecting the life and common mission of the diocese. Yes, you read that correctly. We dance at convention. And we do something else that’s pretty cool.
We welcome children and youth to fully participate in this important event. There is child care for the little ones of course. Those in grade school and Jr. High will have excellent learning opportunities prepared by the wonderful Vicki Garvey on this year’s theme, which is sharing our stories. And the high school youth are invited to participate just as the adults do. They can attend as visitors and enjoy the many offerings at convention or serve as delegates and have full voice and vote on all of the diocesan business that will be discussed and voted on during the convention.
Our diocese has twelve at large Youth Delegate positions. These students will represent their peers around the diocese and vote on resolutions ranging from health care to clergy compensation. They will also help elect new members of important committees like the Bishop and Trustees, which oversees the properties of the diocese and the Standing Committee, which advises the Bishop.
If everything we do sends a message, I think this tells our youth that we value their gifts, we need their voices, and we expect them to engage as faithful leaders in the life of the church. It’s been said many times and many ways that the youth ARE the church. And while this is certainly true, it’s crucial that we continually affirm this reality through our practice and the ways we invite our younger brothers and sisters to BE the church.