I couldn’t believe my ears.
During my first day on staff at Broadway Church in Indianapolis, I heard the story of how the pastor for youth and families was hired.
They told him, “We are excited for you to start your work with us, but we have one rule. You cannot start a youth group. If you start a youth group, you will be fired.”
I grew up on the youth group model in the mainline church.
You know the story.
Sardines at summer lock-ins. Gatherings around a campfire singing praise songs and hearing about how Jesus seeks to save. A dedicated youth room in the basement with decorated walls, rustic couches, and lava lamps. Spaghetti dinners to support youth summer trips.
Ah yes, silos of youth with professionalized youth pastors and leaders, a model that has proven in more recent days to do very little in providing youth with a sustainable faith beyond their teenage years. Youth discovered how to pray, how to read scripture, how to stay up late playing games, but had very little in terms of sustaining a faith formation or sense of grounding in the larger Body of Christ.
But, youth groups were the model, and in many ways continue to be the model.
I see value in teaching youth about the faith. I see value in confirmation. I see value in building community. I see value in service and works of justice. But, are youth groups that are silos apart from the intergenerational nature of the larger work of a local church really an effective model? The folks at my former church say, no, it is not.
I can just hear the rebuttals now.
- But youth groups provide our youth with exposure to kids their own age.
- My kid is bored with all of the adult speak in church, and they need a space where God can speak to them in their own language and experience.
- But I can remember when my kids went through the youth program and we certainly don’t want kids nowadays to miss out.
The youth group model assumes being together in silos of kids their own age effectively provides youth and their families with a sustaining faith.
Except that the data suggests otherwise (For further research see Christian Smith’s Soul Searching and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian).
The research indicates that those coming through youth group programs are abandoning these models and their churches as quickly as they are entering the ranks of their college peers or the workforce. So, what Broadway set out to do with youth was make a shift in the conversation.
Were you to ask the folks of Broadway about this shift they would point you to the power of connection. Since my colleague’s job was not to build a youth group, what exactly was his job? His role was to invest time, energy, money, and resources into the lives of young people as the Church. He threw out monthly gatherings with youth for building upon the gifts, talents, passions, and stories of the youth themselves.
My colleague would find himself gathering youth around the passions or experiences of young people with others in the congregation of various ages who have either similar passions or expertise. He organized dinners in their homes.
A particular teen was being bullied, and my colleague pulled together a group of people from the church to gather at her home to express how much they value her, to share with her what gifts they see present in her life, and to offer her words of blessing and encouragement.
Weeks later, she looked up into the stands of her local middle school gym to find 15-20 members of the church, several of whom spent time in her home to support her, gathered to cheer her on at her basketball game.
This approach demands that every person be invested in the lives of young people in the church and not silo them off to a professional in the basement of the church with a couple of cool couches.
How many of our churches are investing in the lives of youth in ways that fully integrate them into the life of the church, as the church?
Even if Broadway’s model would not be the model other churches would choose to embrace, how might their story change the narrative for how youth ministry is done?
How can we change the work of youth ministry from programs to integrated, holistic relationships that will sustain youth with strength during their formative years of college and beyond?
It begins with being willing to change the conversation. Are we willing?
Chad R. Abbott has been serving churches for 13 years in both the United Methodist and United Church of Christ traditions in New Jersey, Indiana, and Kentucky. He is now currently serving as the pastor of St. Paul’s UCC in Alexandria, KY. His partner’s name is Shannon, and they have two children together, Solomon (5) and Isa (10) and a wired haired terrier named Zoe. Chad loves to run, read, write, and listen to jazz.