Young people in the church: Integral and integrated
After moving from Houston to Lubbock, Texas, two and a half years ago, 26-year-old Megan Howard and her husband, Nick Smith, were looking for a faith community, she says, that shared their values and gave them opportunities to "use our brains." They found it at St. John's United Methodist Church.
"We came from very different faith backgrounds, and the (United) Methodist church was a good fit for both of us, particularly because of its focus on social justice and its tendency to focus more on actions than on rules," Howard says.
They were also impressed with St. John's advocacy for marginalized people and programs designed to reach out to those in need "without any strings attached," she says.
At the location across from Texas Tech University, the couple found young people with similar educational backgrounds and life experiences. Howard worked in biomedical research before entering medical school – she is in her first year – and Smith is getting a doctorate in atmospheric science.
Howard is now a leader in the church, serving for the second year as chair of the church's reconciling ministries, which she initially questioned because she wasn't sure what she thought "about that whole situation." She was surprised when she learned older members had led the church in becoming a reconciling congregation.
"(They) continue to be an inspiration to me," she says. "And I think that they are now excited to see me take up that torch."
One will find broad consensus across the denomination that young people like Howard and Smith are vital to the mission and ministry of the church, but how successfully congregations embrace and integrate them, particularly as leaders, is less certain.
Somewhere in between?
The framework is there, says the Rev. Sam Halverson, associate director of connectional ministries for youth and young adult ministries in the North Georgia Conference.
"One thing I like about The United Methodist Church is its attempt at recognizing that young people are part of today's church, not just the church of tomorrow," he says. "Once a young person joins the church, he or she is a full voting member ... able to add to the leadership and direction of the ministries of that congregation."
In the baptismal covenant, members vow to support and strengthen children as they grow in their faith; young people, in return, give the church direction and purpose.
"In taking on such a vow, we have all agreed to ‘doing' ministry with young people," Halverson says. "We recognize our calling to be the ones who will raise our children in this faith."
The question is whether they also embrace young people's gifts and skills.
The Rev. April Casperson, vice president of institutional advancement at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, believes so.
"I appreciate that our denomination makes spaces for young people to be in leadership," she says. "I watch our younger students take on leadership roles in local churches during seminary, and those leadership opportunities are formational for both the students and the churches."
Casperson acknowledges possible tension for ministry candidates trying to prove their worth and hesitancy from members to let lay students fill leadership roles when they lack education or experience.
"It's helpful, however, for ... lay and clergy to create spaces for young people to ‘try on' leadership roles," she says. "They may not have the specific professional experience of ministry leadership yet, but they bring other gifts and graces to the church and can use those in leadership roles."
That type of integration is happening at some churches, but overall, it is not, says Patrick Scriven, director of communications and young people's ministries in the connectional ministries office of the Pacific Northwest Conference.
While most churches provide programming that effectively nurtures young people, he says those same programs create silos separating adults and young people into their individual spaces. Strong relationships between the two are essential because older leaders trust younger members they know well.
"Without real intentionality, it makes relationships across generations superficial at best," he says. "Without healthy relationships, churches tend to use young people's gifts and leadership poorly."
Intergenerational ministry vital
This means young people often assume token roles offering the pretense of authority and inclusion or tasks that do not match their gifts and skills.
"The key to getting past this challenge," Scriven says, "is more intergenerational ministry so existing leaders have the opportunity to exercise better judgment in inviting young people into leadership."
It is an ongoing process at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the church is seeing results through its United Methodist Women.
The women's group has gradually added circles for younger members, and now, 63 children and youth in fourth to 10th grade participate in seven circles, each with its own purpose and personality, says the Rev. EvaMarie Campbell.
The youngest focuses on missions and the UMW reading list of children's books. Another makes blankets for babies who are baptized. An older circle concentrates on outreach to teenage girls.
Campbell says the UMW invites the girls to all unit meetings and special events so they can participate with the older women. Each younger circle is paired with an adult "sister" circle to foster closer relationships.
"We are still working on building this connection," Campbell says, adding younger members do not yet have leadership roles within the larger group.
Nate Juvinall says strong connections are also happening at First United Methodist Church in Dalton, Georgia.
The 168-year-old congregation has a membership of nearly 1,600 and an average worship attendance of about 500. What is unique about the community, dubbed the carpet capital of the world, is its small-town atmosphere and multigenerational families, says Juvinall, the church's director of youth ministries.
Those families are also active in the church, and he says their already strong relationships make it easier for young people to be accepted in leadership roles. Where those relationships do not naturally exist, the church is creating opportunities for them to flourish.
The confirmation program is an example. Throughout the process, each student has a mentor from the church or community.
"The cool thing about that is there is always a percentage that carry that on beyond the year they do confirmation," Juvinall says, "so it develops into this lifelong friendship."
A multi-year carpentry class for high school boys that replaced a traditional Sunday morning class with little participation was another relationship-building opportunity. Men with a love of woodworking and carpentry taught their skills to the youth, and in the process of making kneeling rails, crosses and offering plates for the church, the youth learned life and faith lessons from their adult mentors.
The church has also offered classes in painting, dance and yoga.
"We try to create what I call venues or environments where we allow that kind of teaching and hands-on, tangible (instruction) to take place," Juvinall says.
Those interactions have helped pave the way for young people to serve on various committees, the traditional and contemporary worship teams, the church's day-care staff and the communications committee, where Juvinall says an 18-year-old member is helping the team make the church's communications more relevant for all generations.
"She is the youngest person on the committee, but yet has a very strong voice, and her vote counts just as much," he says. "Frankly, when she has a point to bring up or a suggestion, the others get quiet a little more quickly because it's her talking."
When students cannot participate because of scheduling conflicts, the church works hard to find alternatives, such as creating subcommittees that meet at times that are more convenient for youth.
Juvinall admits conversations between generations are not always easy.
"It's more of a learning curve issue, with (older) generations learning that students can do so many great things if we allow them that opportunity," he says. "If we as adults and older adults give our time ... our skill set as mentors, then you have that huge pouring into the next generation concept that Christ talks about."
The key, he says, is building those relationships on a regular basis. "If we put aside preconceived notions about each other, we can learn about each other and be the richer for it."
Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Florida.