In late 2016, a team from Fuller Youth Institute published Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. That book is accompanied by several free resources that can be accessed here.
Through their research, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin identified six things that churches who engage in meaningful ministry with young people do well. This series will briefly identify each of the six strategies and share a story of a place in the United Methodist connection doing that strategy well.
Have you ever wondered what a worship service would look like if it were designed by the folks who make Sesame Street?
Have you ever met a Pastor or Worship Leader with that real strong Kidz Bop alumni vibe?
Have you ever imagined what would happen if we switched the children’s moment from a five minute interruption of “big church” to a Christian formation experience with young people across the entire life of the church?
In “Growing Young” (https://churchesgrowingyoung.com) Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin focus our attention on churches who transition to an overall culture of welcoming young people and their families. They also remind us of Jesus’ own “disproportionate prioritization” of young people.
Let’s look at a couple of United Methodist communities that are taking this call to be blessedly biased toward children, youth, and young adults seriously.
A Toddler Mosh Pit for Jesus
On a recent family vacation my wife and I and our two-year-old visited the Anona UMC Family Experience in Largo, Florida. Nicknamed FX, this gathering at 9:30am Sunday is described as a place where kids bring their parents to learn life lessons from Jesus.
From the clubhouse-style staging to the music and skits, this worship service feels more like a kids variety TV show than a religious ceremony. The host (Anona’s Director of Children’s Ministry), jumps onto the stage eliciting the kind of “GOOD MORNING!” from the crowd befitting a Yo Gabba Gabba: Live! show. Middle school dancers lead motions for the praise music. High school actors play out the themes of the day’s scripture in a series of scenes reminiscent of any number of Disney Channel shows.
This is a church gathering designed to communicate the Gospel through media languages familiar to young people. It also encourages adults to be present and to practice having faith like a child.
And it works! Our son only took a couple minutes to realize this was a place for him. Soon he was making his way to the dancing area in front of the stage and laying down some of his best breakdancing moves during the worship music! My wife and I also experienced a fresh kind of Spirit-filled joy and biblical formation seeing our Little Man, and all his new friends learning about the love of God in such a creative way.
Anona UMC’s FX is one way that a church is disproportionately prioritizing children as a way to create a culture of welcome for all young people and their families.
Good Shepherd UMC in Kansas City, Missouri makes young people a priority across all three of its campuses with their gsKids ministry.
During worship times, children are invited downstairs for “hands-on faith practices” just for them. A big-room gathering with singing and Bible teaching, plus age level classes give children the chance to learn about their Christian faith while building foundational relationships with their peers.
This isn’t a five minute children’s “moment” and it isn’t a once-a-year “youth Sunday.” This is a weekly, core faith practice with young people, a building block of this church’s whole ministry.
With connections to next-step communities like Club 5/6 and gsYouth, every young person at Good Shepherd UMC is invited onto a lifelong pathway toward discipleship. Plus, these age-optimized experiences combine with vibrant worship to provide everyone in a family the chance to grow in their faith in the way that works best for them.
Good Shepherd UMC organized its expansion to new campuses in a way that replicated its welcoming culture for young people and their families. The church’s continued growth reveals the kinds of blessings that come from maintaining such a ministry priority.
Grumpy Adults And What To Do With Them
We’re pretty sure that in each of the churches above there was at least some intense discussions of how such priorities might affect other ministries of the church.
“If we spend so much on a children’s pastor, a youth room, or a young adult mission trip, where will the money for [fill in typical grumpy adult church budget item here!] come from?”
But the authors of Growing Young remind us that Jesus expects more from his faith communities than just to allow young people to be around. They note in Mark 10:
“Jesus moved from a command to welcome children to a command to become like children, receiving God’s kingdom as children do.” (Growing Young, Chapter 6, “Prioritize Young People [and Families] Everywhere”)
What a fun reversal of the “when I was a child…I thought like a child” passage in 1 Corinthians. It’s like Mark 10 is actually encouraging us to “put away adultish things!”
In this way we see the inherent unfairness of Jesus. He always prefers those on the margins over those in the know; those with simple faith over those with complicated ministry strategies. Here Jesus lays out his biased, preferential vision for a church made vibrant because of its welcoming culture and over-investment in the lives of young people and their families.
So, maybe the best thing to do with any adults grumpy about Jesus’ bias is to invite them to come breakdance with the toddlers during worship next Sunday.
We hope that the stories of Anona UMC’s FX and Good Shepherd UMC’s gsKids encourage your church to reorganize itself around the disproportionate prioritization of young people and their families across your entire faith community.
And, if you are a children’s TV host looking for a new gig, maybe we can find some breakdancing two-year-olds for you to meet Jesus with!