With shouts of “Amen,” songs of praise, prayers for unity, and a sense of expectation, more than 150 youth leaders from 63 churches gathered at Calvary Korean UMC in East Brunswick on Feb. 11.
The event was the first ever GNJ produced IGNITE youth leaders training event. “The success of IGNITE is only as successful as our youth ministries,” Bishop John Schol said, thanking attendees and presenters for their work with youth. “I believe the church’s future is going to be through our students.” He continued, “God is going to do that because God is using you.”
Participants were exposed to a wide range of expertise from the opening praise band, “Arise” comprised of youth and young adults who lead worship at the Greenhouse church plant, to speakers, researchers, pastors, professors, authors, and scholars.
Keynote speaker, Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean noted, “If our faith looks exactly like everyone else’s we are missing something.” She encouraged youth leaders to examine if their ministries are colonized by “moralistic therapeutic deism,” what she described as a “be good and nice, feel good about yourself, self-centered religion that is masked as Christianity.” Dean, who is a professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, warned that self-centered ministry puts God in the background as wallpaper instead of at the forefront of faith. She encouraged leaders to challenge young people with a higher standard and to invest in the faith of the parents who love their children.
Dean emphasized that leaders must be willing to step out in faith and take chances. Quoting the snowman, Olaf, from the Disney film ‘Frozen,’ she said, “Some people are worth melting for.” She continued, “God thinks we are worth melting for. Someone’s heart melted for us and led him or her to disciple us. Who is worth it to you to melt for?”
Dismissing the stereotype that teenagers are not articulate, Dean pointed out teens are articulate about their passions like music, pop culture and school. The church can ignite young people with a passion for Christ while helping them find the words and actions to articulate their faith.
The Intersection of Hip-Hop Culture and Christian Ministry
Kermit Moss, a Ph.D. student in the area of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, helped attendees further explore the intersection of pop culture and church. In a session called, “Hip-Hop Youth Ministry” he explained that in many communities, Hip-hop is perceived as more authentic and life-affirming than the Christian church.
Hip-hop culture forms identity by starting as imitation but it becomes real as it is practiced. It is inclusive and builds community in three-minute “battles” that form organically in any space that people gather. Because it is youth led, according to Moss, it never dies because as people get older they are committed to mentoring the next generation.
Explaining that the church in the U.S. falls short of these pillars, Moss said young people often feel alienated. He suggested that principles, like restoring brokenness through storytelling and creating flexible practices that forge relationship, are at the heart of Christianity. Churches who are willing to engage in this way build trust, give voice and allow passionate, creative energy to grow. Youth leaders who recognize the value of hip-hop culture, use language that is meaningful to young people and provide resources and commentaries so that they can question and grapple with Scripture.
Question-Based Curriculum and Other Positive Confirmation Class Practices
Kate Unruh agrees that young people are theologians who need “safe places to ask heretical questions.” A doctoral candidate in Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, Unruh’s research shows that a confirmation class curriculum that is guided by student questions is a common theme in positive experiences. “Our goal for them is to know Christ, not just answer questions on a test,” she explained in a breakout session called, “How Not to Suck at Confirmation.”
Unruh said that students want to learn about the Bible, miracles, the meaning of life, and how to be justice builders. “They are seeking deep responses to their deep questions,” she said. “They are curious to know who Jesus is and why he matters.”
Other factors in successful confirmation classes include a strong leadership team, establishing high expectations, including the parents and nurturing relationships, and developing a curriculum that appropriately contextualizes the congregation.
How to Start a Youth Group
Many of those who attended the one-day IGNITE training event are in the beginning stages of building a youth-centered ministry. This was evidenced by the standing room only workshop, “Starting a Youth Ministry From Scratch” led by Rev. Blair Goold. Echoing many of the ideas of relationship, identity, and deep conversations, he outlined important factors in starting a youth group: prayer, people over program, perseverance, and process.
Goold modeled a youth group gathering at Island Heights UMC where he is the pastor. He organized chairs in a circle and passed around a lit “sharing candle” to indicate whose turn it was to share.
Describing his experience of starting a youth ministry with just two participants including his daughter, he emphasized the need for patient persistence. It took his wife and him five years to grow the ministry into two full thriving youth groups with 5-13 middle and high school students.
“Personal relationship building and extending invitations to each child help develop trust and authentic connections. Praying for the ministry and each of the youth by name opens the leaders to God’s vision for the youth group and keeps the leadership grounded in his or her own faith,” said, Goold.
Integrating scripture and Bible study in the ministry without using that language, helps the students understand the church is a place that is different from the outside world. Learning new Bible stories not regularly taught in children’s Sunday school that they can relate to their lives gives them a tool to explore the depth of Christianity.
Goold reminded the group, “Developing a youth ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.” As they establish a covenant and friendships in youth group, Goold said that putting people ahead of program sets up a dynamic that is reflected when they are outside of the group. Meeting consistently from week to week, leaders will find that students begin to gravitate to it even if they are not youth from the church. “It is an alternative fact that there are not children in our communities,” he said. “They just have not found you yet. Be patient.”
“Team Vital markers help the youth group develop a strong foundational process,” Goold continued. One of these markers is engaging in mission. Youth want to be hands on in their contributions. Mission work provides opportunities for youth to make a difference in the world. They experience the joy of giving their time to help others. Every month they can engage in a project that connects them with the congregation and the community.
“Finally,” Goold said, “be sure to identify emerging leadership among the teenagers. Each one has gifts that they bring to the group dynamic, and a strong youth minister will nurture those qualities.” Echoing Moss’ experience with hip-hop culture, Goold stressed the importance of mentoring and youth leadership. “Train youth leaders alongside you. Empower them to lead meetings and make decisions.”
Motivational speaker, Preston Centuolo closed the day of training with humor and insight. “If we are gonna lead youth, we need to get on the ball. The movement starts within,” he said. “God is calling you into this. It doesn’t matter how you start. It’s how you finish.”