Vestries: Listen to God's Call
Editor’s Note: As editor of ECF Vital Practices I watch – and listen – for common challenges congregational leaders face. Often congregational leaders are interested in learning more about how to attract – and keep – our youth and young adults interested in church. After ‘meeting’ high school senior and lay deputy Ariana Gonzales-Bonillas through the pages of the November 2013 Episcopal Journal and being introduced to her experience at all levels of our church, from congregational youth group to General Convention, I invited her to reflect on things vestries might consider when it comes to strengthening their youth and young adult presence.
On a recent Sunday, shortly before Christmas, there were about fifteen teenagers present in my high school youth group at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Chandler, Arizona. This was a low Sunday for us, in a group that does not include middle school students, or the 3rd through 6th graders. In total, the youth group at St. Matthew’s has about 50 youth from grades 3rd to 12th. The Sunday School has more children, from nursery age to 2nd grade.
Welcome to a family church. In 2012, St. Matthew’s had 641 members, 355 that regularly attend Sunday services. What is working for us: the adults on vestry recognize that the youth are vital to the church and the adults that facilitate youth group make an effort to be a part of the youth’s lives and care for them and want to help them to grow not only in their faith but also in the world while keeping their faith. This focus on youth is a big part of why St. Matthew’s is growing.
Here’s what I have learned from my experience at St. Matthew’s, as well as through participation at diocesan events and church camp, the Episcopal Youth Event, and the 2012 General Convention Official Youth Presence:
Youth are vital. Making them feel included, not only by the adults, but also by their own peers, is the key to greater youth participation across the church at all levels. When youth are making friends in church, we tend to feel more included and want to attend more often. The youth group will grow when they find church to be an enriching environment for their faith and life where they can make friends and bring friends to share in their blessings. Vestries should consider hiring a director of children and youth ministries to welcome youth to the church; preferably this person will be a “teenager-in-an-adult-body” to make that first teenage connection.
On all levels of the church – local, diocesan, provincial, and national – we must let the youth and young adults know that they are cared for by caring about their spiritual well being. Young adults should be included in youth ministries because they still need guidance and are they are also vital to the church.
A new ministry at St. Matthew’s that I am excited about is the help being offered to high school seniors and recent graduates in finding a new spiritual home as they move away from Chandler and St. Matthew’s. This ministry is about the community taking care of their young adults as they grow into their independence.
We must also let youth know that they are important by caring about their opinion. At St. Matthew’s, “PB & Jesus” is a youth-founded and youth-led ministry that provides food for people who are homeless in downtown Phoenix. Started a few years ago by two teenagers who have since graduated from high school, another youth group member and I now lead PB & Jesus, motivating others to commit to this ministry the first Sunday of every month. The adults drive us downtown and pay for the supplies, but they acknowledge that the youth are the ones running it and keeping it vital and fresh in ideas. This ministry is one way St. Matthew’s recognizes youth’s power to help others.
The dilemma with religion and faith is that there are collective beliefs and you want everyone to have a similar experience in their upbringing in youth group, but then Protestants also want to have their own individual experience in faith. You don’t want to be the boring youth group that reads from a book and expects the youth to answer run-of-the-mill questions. This might ask the youth to participate, but teenagers and the younger kids that look up to them are not enthusiastic about being put “on the spot.” Youth group is neither fun nor deep then; it becomes superficial because the discussion is stagnant. Faith is what needs to be discussed in a memorable way, and each individual will develop his or her own faith from this. For instance, one of the most memorable lessons to me in youth group – out of many – was about doubt and how we can grow in our faith from having doubt. But to start the lesson, the leaders set up pitchers labeled with a doubt, such as “God exists,” “Miracles exist,” “God loves me personally,” etc. Each youth received a cup of green water, and we poured water into the pitchers with the statements we doubted sometimes. Most people put water in “God exists,” but no one put water in “God loves me personally.” From the following discussion, I learned that even as I doubt, my faith is stronger because of it. This is how youth come back to church to stay: the company is fun, but the lessons should encourage participation and be memorable and meaningful to their lives.
Ultimately, the youth will come to the church that accepts them and expects them to be leaders instead of the afterthought.
Interested in growing your youth group? Then ask yourself these questions:
- How does your congregation today take care of the youth in your congregation?
- How are you encouraging or empowering the youth already present at your church to become leaders?
- Churches with vibrant youth programs recognize the value they bring to the congregation; what benefits do the youth in your congregation add to the church?
- Does your congregation facilitate youth founded and youth led ministry?
- In what ways are your Sunday School and/or youth programs creating space for youth to discover their faith?
Ariana Gonzalez-Bonillas is a lay deputy for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona to the 2015 General Convention. She has written for the Episcopal Journal, was part of the General Convention Official Youth Presence in 2012, and is part of the Episcopal Youth Event Planning Team for 2014. Ariana will graduate with the high school class of 2014 and is a candidate for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
- St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Chandler, AZ