September 2008

New ways of reaching youth

As we shape and direct the mission of our parishes, young people should be at the front of our agendas. If this hasn’t been the case for your vestry, such a shift will require new ways of thinking about church life.

It will certainly demand new ways of allocating resources. But perhaps you are already blessed by a parish that recognizes ministry with adolescent youth is vital to a healthy community of faith.

How best to be supportive of young people in parish life? It is difficult to know where to begin. This uncertainty may be exacerbated by a sense of profound distance between the adults and the youth in a parish. Intentional work is the key here — beginning with the leaders of the parish, the vestry. Here are some questions worth considering in your efforts to cultivate a parish that is hospitable to young people:

Are you talking to the youth of your parish?
As a general rule, it is important for vestry members to be gregarious at church gatherings. They should be, as a rule, vigilant in welcoming newcomers and keeping an ear to the concerns of regular members.

I believe that this also extends to speaking regularly with the youth of the parish. This may prove awkward, given the developing social skills of the young. But a brief word or two, even if the conversation goes nowhere, contributes toward engaging our youth in the life of the parish. And don’t try to be someone you aren’t. A little authenticity goes a long way.

Are the youth in prominent worship roles?
Your parish should set aside age-appropriate programming for its young people. Supporting this avenue of ministry is essential. But it would be unfortunate if this led to a profound division between the youth and the rest of the parish. The danger lies in the so-called “ghettoizing” of youth into a separate and distinct sphere of church life.

Encouraging young people to take visible leadership roles in regular worship is one antidote against such a division.

Young people are able to serve not only as acolytes, but also as ushers, lay readers, and Eucharistic ministers. Some parishes have been known to hold an annual “Youth Sunday” when all lay roles (even preaching) is the youth’s responsibility. However youth participation in common worship is configured, be sure that invitations are being extended.

Are enough parish resources devoted to the youth?
Give your budget line item for youth a cursory comparison against other line items. How does your church’s youth budget compare to other aspects of church life, such as music or groundskeeping? There is no right answer to this question. And a larger budget does not necessarily equal greater quality. But it always helps to consider the proportion of resources given to a certain ministry in relationship to the mission of the church.

If you are focusing on youth in your parish, does your budget reflect this? And be sure to pray for the young people of your parish, both individually and as a gathered vestry. God provides opportunities that are hardly predictable, and your prayers serve to keep you mindful of new occasions for support that may come your way.

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