September 2008

For youth, it's all about relationships

Six years ago, when I took on the position of Youth Minister at Grace Episcopal Church, I didn’t have the slightest idea of where to begin. And those nights when two or three kids showed up when I had worked for days on programs that require at least eight or ten kids to be effective took their toll on me, quickly.

I became frustrated with myself, the church, and my girlfriend for talking me into taking the job — and those lazy, indifferent parents. And so I quit. Several times a week. But, thank God, I never told the rector of my quitting, so I was back at it the next week.

Since then, I have learned some invaluable lessons:

Lesson one: It doesn’t have to always be all about God. 
Not always. Sometimes, just bringing the kids together to hang out can be a good thing. It still keeps them connected with the church, after all. I wouldn’t recommend activities that are in direct opposition with our religious principles, obviously — but the lock-in doesn’t have to be about evangelizing— it can serve as a great way for kids to get to know each other AND their friends.Building community is the first step.

A couple years ago, while attending a workshop, I was given an assignment: to conduct a survey of kids regarding their top reasons for coming to youth groups. While learning about God and studying the Bible did make the list, the top reason most often given was that they came to hang out with their friends. And that’s just fine. You can’t build the kingdom without subjects! While they’re hanging out, we can sneak up on ‘em with the Gospel, and they’ll be none the wiser.

Lesson two: It’s all about relationships.
I began to interact with kids on a more personal level outside of the Grace Church youth group — opening up to them in the hallway before and after church — asking about their lives, their interests, and sharing details about myself (being a retired police officer, I found that it was my cop stories that did the trick). All but the most resistant cases began to open up and to see me as an individual — not just the youth leader.

These days, technology is the way to go. Not a day goes by in which I don’t chat with at least one of my EYC kids on Windows Live Messenger. At least two to three times a week I get a Facebook Message or a note on the “wall” of my Facebook page, or a call or text message on my cell phone. And kids will type things that they would never take the time or have the courage to talk face-to-face.

Just last week, one of the girls in the junior high group sent me a Facebook message that asked me to help her find ways to come closer to God, saying she wanted to try her hardest to help it happen. I was so excited with her inquiry that I hardly knew where to begin in answering!

Lesson three: Take it outside.
Like so many youth leaders these days, I have experienced difficulty in holding the interest of our senior high group. I suppose we could theorize forever as to why this is true, so I won’t head down that road right now. But suffice it to say that I finally figured out that maybe the Senior High felt that Sunday morning was enough “church” for one day. And besides, the youth room at Grace has all the standard youth room stuff — air hockey, ping-pong table, foosball table — none of which seem to readily appeal to senior high youth, at least not those of Grace Episcopal.

So we tried meeting somewhere else, off the church campus, and away from the games in the youth room. I picked Joe Muggs Café, a small restaurant found in many Books-a-Million stores. I had noticed kids of similar age hanging around the restaurant’s reading space — what if we gathered there and talked about issues pertaining to theology and morality and the like? The first night I had seven kids, a phenomenal number for senior high, the next meeting, nine.

Lesson Four: Be creative.
This will nearly always ensure that you will fail from time to time, but trial and error have been my two best friends in youth ministry programming. Here we try to listen for the voice of God in nontraditional places.

For me, it began with the use of episodes of The Simpsons. Obviously, one must exercise discretion in choosing the episodes — the writers are after all, comedy writers, not Sunday School teachers. But one thing the show has done consistently is accurately portray Americans’ views of religion. Despite the fact that the evidence frequently says otherwise, most Americans see religion as playing some part in their lives. Mark Pinksy, author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons (2001) notes that 69 percent of the episodes contain a reference to religion and 11 percent focus on a religious issue.

We have also tried to expand this creativity into the area of service — working with animals in shelters, picking up trash on the highway. Needless to say, the kids have loved their time with the animals, and while picking up trash is not quite as exciting, they do understand that it is part of being good stewards of God’s creation.

Filling in the cracks
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with the Rev. Jay Magness, former Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Kentucky. We talked about the challenges of doing effective youth ministry in view of all the other activities that place a demand upon the time of kids of today, from soccer to scouting and everything in between. He said something that has stuck with me — that it seems in youth ministry today we are “filling in the cracks” of the schedules of our kids. And he was right.

Many youth participate in EYC activities only when there is nothing else to fill that time slot. At first that was rather disheartening, but I have come to see our “filling in the cracks” in much the same way as mortar fills in the cracks between bricks. Were it not for the mortar filling in, the bricks would not a building make. So I have begun to see our challenge as being the best “mortar” we can be — always opting for quality over quantity.

Stefan Jagoe is the Youth Minister at Grace Episcopal Church in Paducah, Kentucky, a town of some 27,000 people, “the hub of far western Kentucky.” Grace Episcopal has some 500 members on the books, representing about 200 households.

This article is part of the September 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Youth