EATONTOWN – “You have been called by name and seen and loved,” Justin Forbes told youth leaders from throughout GNJ. “God’s message of love is on display in Jesus Christ. And when someone tells you they love you, the only response requested is, ‘I love you, too.’ Today we are making a plan to respond.”
Forbes was the keynote speaker at the second annual IGNITE Youth Leaders Day on February 10. Through worship, workshops, fellowship and food, youth and adults were encouraged to connect with new people, identify at least one new practice to bring back to their home church, and be open to a new idea that might be challenging. The daylong conference was hosted at Monmouth Grace UMC in Eatontown.
Participants in this year’s training event included middle and high school students who are active in their youth groups. High school junior Luke Kearns is a member of Lacey UMC. He is looking forward to his senior year and thinking about how God is moving him into leadership in his church even as he juggles football, work and school.
Several students attended with family members. Eighth grader Faith Herrrick, from Conklin UMC in South River participated with her mother, brother and youth group. She values her youth group because it is a space to, “make new relationships and friends and helps me stay connected with God even when I can’t go to church.” She added, “the IGNITE youth leaders’ day helped me learn more about how to be a leader for others.”
Presenters included a diverse range of experts in youth ministry covering topics about urban ministry, discipleship with youth who have disabilities, incorporating youth into worship, Bible study to help youth hear their call in leadership and how understanding language and culture impacts discipleship.
A special youth track led by Wes Ellis and Erik “Skitch” Matson encouraged youth to experience assurance of God’s love for them. Using humor and Bible study, Matson and Ellis guided students through Jesus’ interaction with the rich man who wanted to know how to have eternal life in Mark 10:17-22. The students worked in small groups and discussed the pressures facing the rich man. Unpacking the illustration, Matson asked the youth about the pressures they face.
Many students expressed anxiety about school and grades, including preparation for college or facing the reality that college is not an option at this time. Some of the girls mentioned body image concerns and the sense that “guys are judging you.” The youth discussed a pressure to be more successful than their parents that often feels unattainable.
Matson reminded the young people that, “God loves you not because of anything you do. God accepts you. You are enough. God’s grace is given to you every day. In God’s grace there is freedom from the pressure because God’s love is bigger than the pressure.”
Ellis added, “When Jesus calls you and invites you to follow him, he is not adding to these expectations. He is inviting you to let go of the anxiety. You are already called to be disciples. The enemy of discipleship is anxiety. The enemy of ministry is anxiety. You are already accepted in freedom and joy because Jesus has said ‘I love you.’ And as we heard earlier, responding ‘I love you too’ is all that is required.”
Charles Perez led a workshop called “Making Disciples of Young People Through Language and Culture.” He leads a new church ministry called Holy Hoops that uses Hip Hop to connect with young people through spoken word. Sharing the importance of authentic relationships with youth, he said, “I try to build one on one connections even when we are not talking about Jesus. If you don’t trust me you will not trust my God. Christ will come out in my mentoring and my coaching.”
He told a story about bringing one of the Holy Hoops members to a “traditional” church service. The student’s response was, “Man, so that’s what a time machine feels like.”
Because many of the youth who are part of Holy Hoops were not raised going to church, Perez uses a strategy he calls, “snack packing” for engaging them in discipleship.
“Offer young people a space where they can do what they want, and start the session with a prayer or devotional. Through that process start a revolutionary service,” Perez said.
When Holy Hoops started three years ago, he would preach only five minutes but now that the youth trust him, he says can preach for 30 minutes and there is a sense of “quietness and awe” during Holy Communion.
When Perez asked youth in the IGNITE workshop about the importance of fellowship in the Wesleyan tradition, youth responded with accounts of how youth group, student leadership team, devotions, and lock-ins helped them avoid social cliques.
“Everyone is equal and we learn how to be friends with people we might not have been friends with if we met somewhere else,” one student commented.
Asking where they experience meaningful connections with God, their responses varied. Many noted that at summer camp they experienced God through, “singing together and recognizing our spiritual bond while connecting with God’s creation throughout the day.” Others said they loved to worship at IGNITE where the “flavor” was more modern.
In a workshop about engaging youth in worship, Director of Worship Eric Drew emphasized, “Young people care more about community, creativity and engagement than worship style.”
Echoing Perez’ focus on relationships, Drew emphasized the importance of connecting students with adults in the congregation to develop intergenerational conversations and understandings.
“When students understand why certain traditions are important in the church setting, they are more likely to appreciate it. They want to find meaning and will more deeply engage if they understand the purpose of different parts of worship,” he said. For example, “When youth sing in the choir, explain to them that they are offering their voices to God. When students read Scripture, give them the background about the writer and the context of the text. Invite them to share their sermon ideas. Inviting youth to participate in worship keeps Jesus central to them. Young people love the radical person who lived and put it all on the line and died and was resurrected. They want to engage and work to figure it out.”
According to Drew, this is a generation that engages first, and their faithfulness will follow. He believes giving students more responsibility helps them to know they are valued and trusted by the congregation.
As participants closed the day with worship, Forbes offered encouragement.
“We are recipients of a living love letter,” he said. “We are clear on who the sender is. Who is the recipient? How will we translate the love of Jesus?”