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.
Why are the simple questions often the hardest? It seems obvious that our ministry efforts with young people are intended to help them navigate the path from adolescence to adulthood and mature in their faith. But as soon as adults begin a conversation about youth ministry, there will be a former camp counselor or Sunday school teacher whose hand will shoot up, and passionately explain that they “get way more out of youth ministry than the kids do.” I know exactly what they mean. Young people are insightful, passionate, and they demand authenticity. They challenge us, bless us, and often teach us. So yes, what we “get” ouf of youth ministry will often feel like much more than we give.
I just think we have to be careful here. After all, we are the adults. And as many great things as there are about adolescents, we don’t want them to stay adolescents. At least I don’t think we do. If we hope to help them walk the path to adulthood and grow in their faith, then they need us. And many writers and researchers today would say they really need us. Professor and Youth Ministry veteran Chap Clark says quite plainly in his book Hurt that, “The fact is that adolescents need adults to become adults, and when adults are not present and involved in their lives, they are forced to figure out how to survive life on their own.”
The great truth is that youth ministries help everyone involved to encounter God and grow in faith. But I think we should be clear that the ministry is FOR the youth. Otherwise, we can start to believe that “the kids are alright” and they don’t need us, or even grow complacent in pursuing our own mature faith. If we truly are “getting more out of youth ministry than the kids,” it could be an indication that we need to grow a little deeper, so that we can give a little more.
Lately I’ve been preparing for a youth event called Miqra (meek•rah) that’s coming up in our diocese. It’s a weekend retreat that was started in the Diocese of Kansas, and it centers around the Bible. One of the main activities during the event is an ongoing reading of scripture that goes around the clock. Throughout the weekend the participants read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Youth and adults volunteer to read and sign up for time slots on a sort of tag-team schedule. The reading takes 72 hours.
My first encounter with this event was in 2003, when I began as the Youth Coordinator for the Diocese of Kansas. The event had been held for the first time the previous year and had started in a very grass roots fashion. A group of youth approached their youth leader at the time, the Rev. Kelly Demo, saying they wanted to know more about the Bible. So they began to dream up an event where youth could interact with the Bible, engage with it, ask questions, and learn about God’s “love letter to the world.” Miqra was the end product, and I was somewhat flabberghasted by the concept. It was audacious but simple. Bring youth together. Put a chair and a Bible at the front of the sanctuary. Have them take turns reading the Bible out loud for thirty minutes to an hour. And while the reading continues, have a good old-fashioned youth event with games, singing, workshops, worship, great meals, and small group discussions with the Bible as the focus. And don’t forget to let the youth wander into the sanctuary once in a while and just listen to the reading.
I think the power of the event is that it simply gives young people an opportunity to encounter the Bible, and ultimately to encounter God. Miqra has had a sustained impact in the Diocese of Kansas and beyond. The event has grown for the past twelve years and has spread to other churches and dioceses as well. As last year’s youth preacher said at the Miqra event in Kansas, we shouldn’t underestimate God. Simple ideas can be very powerful if we are faithful and trust that God is faithful to us.
I didn’t attend church growing up. So I often retrace my faith journey to remind myself how I got here. As a teenager I was blessed to have friends invite me to a thriving youth ministry. And looking back it had all the right stuff: quality teaching on the Christian faith, emphasis on community service and justice, youth leadership, great music, funny skits, laugh out loud games, engaging trips, and even healthy small groups. Wow! No wonder it was successful.
But oddly enough, I don’t think any of that is why the ministry impacted me. I’m convinced that the reason this ministry was transformative for me and so many others was that we developed relationships with healthy, authentic, and faithful adults that cared about us right where we were. I can still remember the welcome I received first time I attended. It was a quick exchange with the adult leader, but the look in his eyes told me all I needed to know. I was loved and welcomed with no strings attached.
Over time I developed friendships with other adults in the ministry, and I soon began to notice something about them. They had love, joy, and peace in their lives in a way that I didn’t. And they seemed to be saying it was because of their Christian faith. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted what they had. I wanted to love God and love others the way they did. I wanted to be alive with joy and purpose as they were. I still do. I’m still trying to be like Cheryl, Mike, Joe, Bruce, Steve, and Glen.
I think Youth Ministry’s “greatest hit” is when healthy, faithful adults build relationships with young people. For me that is the most vital component. And if it exists, any youth ministry can be transformative, no matter the size of the group, or the programming/curricula involved.
I love music, especially rock and roll. And not long ago I rediscovered the joy of vinyl records for listening to music. There is a long running debate over whether they sound better than their digital counterparts, but I find that listening to an album just helps me focus. There is something about physically taking the record out of its cover, putting it on the player, and gently placing the needle, that makes me feel more present to the music.
In the same time that we’ve gone from vinyl to digital in our culture, there has been a great deal of change in youth culture, the Church, and how we conceive of youth ministry. And it seems there is a lot of discussion around what it is, what we’re trying to accomplish, and how we should best go about ministering with young people.
I’m of the opinion that some of the things we used to do in youth ministry still “sound good,” especially if they help us to be present to those we are ministering with, to see Christ in them and allow them to see Christ in us. So I’m not suggesting we go back to the “vinyl years,” just hoping to share some youth ministry classics as we also explore the latest hits together.