Growing Young

Taking Jesus' Message Seriously - Growing Young - 6 of 6

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.

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Relationship is at the center of all Christian communities; a relationship with God through Christ. Relationships with fellow Christians, searchers, and outcasts…those familiar and unfamiliar alike. Social media has allowed these relationships to easily last beyond contact in the teenage years at church. I remain connected to many youth and family members whom I served through ministry at the local church. One of the gifts of enough time in ministry is watching youth grow and mature into adults. Upon finishing Growing Young, I reached out to several of my now-grown youth, to ask two questions:

1) What do you remember as most meaningful in your youth ministry experience?

2) What would have made your youth ministry experience more meaningful or lasting for your faith?

The answers to the first question, as you can imagine, were across the board. Many stories of laughter and service. A few stories that involved tears and deep emotions. Lots of conversation about friends who felt like family. The second question however had a much more related set of responses. Each of the people I spoke with said something along the lines of “I wish we went deeper. Not just skim the surface.” I think some of those responses have come with age, people now able to process and understand things on a different level than in their teen years. Yet, there is truth in their yearning as well. Often, our topics would touch current events and building base Biblical knowledge or theological concepts. However, because of constraints of time, space, and yes – even my leadership, many of my former youth now express a wish that they had taken and known Jesus’ message better during their teens. These reports corroborate the research reported in Growing Young.

There is a holy mystery that young people investigate as a part of their faith journey. That mystery is rooted in Jesus’ question to Peter in Matthew 16:13-20; “Who do you say that I am?” Youth must discover the answer to that question as they determine their own identity, belonging, and purpose in Christ. That question also requires that youth become familiar with the life and teachings of Jesus. Only through familiarity can someone begin to take Jesus’ message seriously. Taking Jesus and his teachings seriously, does not mean approaching faith dryly, without humor or creativity. On the contrary, it means helping youth know and experience what Jesus taught, and then helping them practice what he preached. Through those experiences youth will begin to seriously consider the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor.

Taking Jesus’ message seriously includes understanding, practice, reflection, and action. After all, Jesus would often call his Disciples and others to “Go and learn what this means.” A shout out to the youth of the Rocky Mountain Conference (Mountain Sky Episcopal Area), who have spent the 2016-17 school year seriously engaged with Matthew 25 and the concept of “Beloved Community.” They have been working diligently to understand and figure out ways to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger.

Questions for You

  • How do you create space for youth to interact and experience Jesus’ message?
  • Are there things Jesus said that are difficult to take seriously?
  • How do youth in your ministry express their love for God and their love for neighbor?

Like a Good Neighbor - Growing Young - 5 of 6

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.

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Copywriters are some of the most creative people.  They simplify a message so it sticks.  Long after we have viewed or heard the commercial, we remember it.  For example, State Farm’s mantra is “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is there.”

Growing Young reminds the church that its goal needs to be to “Neighbor Well.” But it is not an easy task because it requires us to raise question after question after question.  Questions are difficult for the church and its leadership at times. But to “Neighbor Well” is to ask the questions.

With a trifecta of Scripture – Leviticus 19, Matthew 22 and Luke 10 – the authors insist that churches who are growing young dig deeper to find the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  It is not a rhetorical question, but a conversation starter as individuals seek to know their communities in an authentic and transformative manner.  It requires moving beyond the surface to listening to those you encounter, observing the ritual of the community life and most importantly, moving outside the church’s walls.

When one knows his or her neighbor, it is a little easier to respond with authenticity to the question, “How can I serve?”  Most churches practice some form of acts of mercy -- doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination, and addressing the needs of the poor, but when you know your neighbor, you can respond to specific needs rather than general needs.

For example, Church of the Resurrection discovered that many of its neighbors did not have food to sustain them throughout the weekend.  This led to their backpack ministry, which provides families with groceries for the weekend. A church in Alabama found that many residents in their neighborhood had no access to laundry facilities.  Their response was to open a laundromat in the church’s basement.  Recently, Columbia Drive United Methodist Church provided meals to the basketball teams when they made it to the playoffs and there was not money in the school budgets for meals.  These acts of mercy grew out of churches knowing their neighboring community.

But there is another question, you must ask yourself if you are going to “Neighbor Well.”  How will deal you with difficult issues?

Researchers suggest to “Neighbor Well” requires congregations to create space for diversity and “Holy Conversation.”  Churches are not afraid to tackle tough issues, but foster a spirit of healthy dialogue among its members and community.  These congregations shift the focus from the result to the process, which fosters a healthy atmosphere where growth and learning occurs.

 “Churches that grow young recognize the careful dance that values both fidelity to scripture’s commands for holiness and knowing and graciously loving their neighbor,” the authors said.  “This doesn’t imply wholehearted acceptance, or that your church should pretend real differences do not exist.  However, hospitable neighbors maintain both dialogue and relationship, especially when they disagree.”

Warm is the New Cool - Growing Young - 4 of 6

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.

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In Growing Young, one of the key strategies is to “Fuel a Warm Community." In this chapter they say that young people are not looking for the coolest program or even worship. They long for church and its community to be deep in genuine relationships and connections . . . "A place to belong."

This is further emphasized and backed up by the research done by the Search Institute that identifies 40 assets (of which involvement in weekly religious activity is one), and states the more assets young people possess, the higher their self-esteem and the lower involvement in risk taking behavior. “Places of faith have great potential to provide experiences, relationships, opportunities, skills and qualities that help young people thrive and make responsible, healthy choices.”

As I further explored the suggestions in this chapter, I thought of a young person who I recently accompanied to a meeting with their pastor. This young person described church as “home, the place where he felt grounded and cared for.”

This statement was the core of what this strategy was all about.  Some of the ideas for action strategies that they suggest (but they emphasize not trying all at once) that I felt were particularly helpful were the following:

  • Honest Relationship Builds Belonging - Showing up for young people at their activities and events, inviting them for meals and being “real” in their conversations which included honesty, listening and creating trust around their struggles and shortcomings.
  • Warm Intergenerational Relationships Grow Everyone Young - Less time for isolated programming, more time for open truly shared experiences in worship, small group and fellowship, all learning and growing together.
  • 5:1 Ratio of ADULTS and Young People – 5 adults committing to nurturing and supporting one youth through prayer, encouragement and honest connections.
  • Pray Warmly --- (I love this!) One approach to this was every Sunday all generations write down prayer requests on sticky notes and they are posted on the wall.  Later, others take a sticky note and commit to pray for the requests.  
  • Rethinking Small Groups - No long term commitment, instead brought together for an interest, a particular sermon series for example, with no expectation of regular attendance.  Intentional  “on ramp activities” such as an all church retreat that allows people to get to know each other and feel comfortable with joining, and then changing their small group attendance.
  • Long term nurturing of the relationships - This can be done with a single team of leaders staying with the same group of young people through each grade until graduation, keeping in touch and showing care to graduates when they head to college as to know they continue to be loved, and an important part of the church.
  • Finally, my own thoughts as a United Methodist to this shift in becoming “Cool” would be to recognize those young people for which church has become “family” and “home” and realizing they need help during those times of transition of youth pastors, senior pastors and sometimes programs and practices that often occur during the appointment process. This is just like someone from their family moving away and leaving them (sometimes yet again) and they don’t always have the skills, the family support to navigate the “new” that is happening in their life of faith and in their church.  Be intentional in helping young people process and move forward.

Resources:

Growing Young:  6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin.  CHAPTER 5:  Fueling a Warm Community

Sticky Faith:  Kara Powell & Chap Clark

Intergrating Assets into Congregations James Conway, M.Div, in cooperation with The Search Institute Practical Research Benefiting Children and Youth

Unfair Jesus Breakdancing Through the Praise Songs - Growing Young - 3 of 6

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.

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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.
 

Kids Everywhere 

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.

So…

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!

Empathizing with Today’s Young People - Growing Young - 2 of 6

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.

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In Growing Young,  we read about a leader who keeps a photo of himself as a teenager displayed to remind him of “that awkward phase” (pg. 117).  I decided that I would begin this blog article by sharing me at the age of 16:

So. Amazing. 

For some reason that date is wrong because this is not 1994, but 1996.  This is a quintiessential teen-Abby photo.  I liked to try on a, “I’m very adult and angry” look.  I didn’t know my hair was curly so it was usually this weird, brushed out frizzy style you see here.  I think I’m about to audition for something, hence the sparkly dress, practice tape, and make-up.  I’m not sure if I thought this was a good look or not but I know I was fairly confident, and hadn’t failed enough to think otherwise.  Paradoxically, I also remember feeling like I was just trying so many things on because I didn’t really know who or what I wanted to be.  I often was who I thought my friends would want me to be.  How can a person be confident, assured and feel grown-up and responsible while also feeling unprepared, unsure, and nervous all at the same time? I think that is pretty much the essence of being a teenager.

In the chapter “Empathize with Today’s Young People”, the writers in Growing Young ask us as individuals and congregations to remember being a teenager or a young adult while also learning how being young is different today.  If we take the time to look at what most young people are experiencing we’d know that “growing up” is taking longer.  Young people are hitting many of the “adult” stages of life later.  Several of my friends have gone to school, worked, gone back to school, lived with their parents again, gone back to work at a job that is probably not a forever gig and by this point they are 30ish, maybe still single, with no children.  This is generally when a lot of them marry and have children… or not.  The point is, by the time people are in their late 20’s, they may still be in school and living with their parents due to numerous factors, some beyond their control.  At the same time, we know that “growing up” also happens a lot faster.  Teenagers are asked to know more information, read books we read in high school for their middle school work, or be well on their way to a professional level in sports or music by the time they enter high school.  They engage deeply in the social issues of the world because of their accessibility via smartphones, and make many “adult” decisions before the age of 17 about career paths, expensive college educations, sexual choices, and choices around drugs and alcohol.

Young people are also asking “the ultimate questions” (p. 95) we all continue to ask and that we all asked most acutely as young people:

Who am I? What is my identity?

Where do I fit? How do I belong?

What difference do I make?  What is my purpose?

We know they are often asking these questions without the help of a church or even trusted older adults in their lives.  We can probably agree that navigating these questions of meaning and purpose with the faith of an elementary aged student and only peer-to-peer advice is probably not ideal.  How can the church engage in this meaning making for the long haul, like we promised in our baptismal covenant?  Creating relationships that allow us to help young people make meaning of their lives first requires empathy.  Growing Youngoffers several ways to create empathy.  One is to remember, like I did above.  Another suggestion is to “ask why” when you see something confusing, new, or even offensive in the culture of young people.  Invite conversation to learn more, rather than shutting the possibility of relationship down. 

Union Coffee in Dallas is all about seeking to empathize with young people and people who feel far from the church.  They do this most by creating a place that is all about fostering community through questions.  This new church start was a plant that began as a coffee shop with the slogan “community with a cause”. Their community building spaces ARE their worship services.  They center open mic nights, poetry readings, service opportunities, and communion around the ultimate questions young people wrestle with.  Each time to gather is more about discussion and questions than providing answers and Union is OK with that.  

What are ways your community could ask more questions and create space for conversation with young people? 
Who can you talk to about the things in the culture of young people you don’t understand or find offensive? 
Can you pray for God to give you eyes to see people to talk with, and open doors toward good conversation?

Growing Young - Unlocking Keychain Leadership 1 of 6

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.

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The researchers identify keys as “the capabilities, power, and access of leaders that carry the potential to empower young people.” Keys provide physical access to a building, and metaphorically they have the ability to welcome people in or lock people out. Leaders in power are those who hold the keys. The more power one has, the more keys that leader possesses in a church. Key chain leaders are aware of the keys in their possession and they are “intentional about entrusting and empowering all generations…with their own set of keys.”

A keychain leader does not horde, or keep keys. They do not lend keys out expecting their prompt return. Instead, they are willing to make sets of keys and hand them over to leaders of all ages in the church, and be willing to go along for the ride. Keys are not handed over haphazardly, but they are entrusted to those empowered as fellow leaders in a community of faith.

At Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, TN, the fall of 2015 was a time of discernment. An area church had a proposal going to General Conference 2016. That church was collecting statements from other churches in favor of their proposal, and Christ UMC had been asked if they would sign on in support. The church leadership planned a series of three “Town Hall” style listening events, that a small group of leaders would each attend to listen, discern, and pray together with church members before this small group made their decision. Included on that smaller leadership team was a seventeen-year-old boy, Jacob. He was tasked with listening to the youth ministry concerns as well as all of the feedback from the Town Halls.

Now, the important part of this story is not what the outcome of the meetings were, nor what the youth ministry thought of the final decision of the church. One important part of this story is that church leadership invited a youth to be on the deciding committee! Additionally, Jacob was fully trusted and listened to in the process. He was not a “token young person.”

However, the most important part of this story isn’t actually about Jacob at all. The most important part of this story is the culture of the church and the personality of the pastoral leadership. Jacob could not have been just inserted at seventeen years old and asked to have the spiritual maturity to listen and discern along with adult members of the congregation. Jacob needed to be encouraged, equipped, and empowered from the time that he was a child so that he understood that his role and voice would be as a full member in the life of his church. He was tabbed as the right person to fill the role of a youth on that decision-making group not just because he was in the right place at the right time. He was the right young person because the leadership of the church had shown Jacob what leadership meant and gave him chances to lead while he grew in faith.

Do you see young people like Jacob where you are in ministry?

Are you a leader who is comfortable handing over the keys?

Are you part of a community that empowers young people to lead and welcomes their input equally with adults?