Over A Few Years – Life in Youth Ministry
Content Warning: This article contains mention of violence, trauma, and sexuality.
I have had the incredible privilege of being involved in youth and children’s ministry over many years. I started teaching Sunday School at 14 years old, was part of a Christian youth outdoor education camp in the Blue Mountains, a volunteer youth leader, a paid Youth Pastor, and a Mission Worker with a focus on youth. These experiences, along with theological study, led me to teach a number of subjects at United Theological College concerning different aspects of youth ministry. It has been an amazing adventure and an incredible learning experience, as young people taught me as much as I did them.
Over that time, there were fun activities, a lot of food, deep conversations, and wrestling with theology, all shared with an amazing and varied group of children, youth, and young adults.
There were a few issues that I saw come up over and over during my time in youth ministry. My top three would have to be the place of young people in the church, significant adult relationships, and, not surprisingly, sexuality.
My father was a lay preacher. When he took a service, my mother would do the children’s talk and my two siblings and I would all have something to contribute. We were valued as part of the church body, even though we were young. I wrestle with the concept that children and youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They are part of the church now, leaders now and have valuable contributions to make now. When churches see their young people as only something to add numbers to the congregation’s size, as a source for more income or, and I’d argue worse, something that has to be separated from “real” church with their own service or Friday night youth group, they miss the incredible vitality and value of all that young people have to offer.
When I was teaching, the statistics were that 70 percent of people who had made a commitment to Christ in their teenage years would not be in church by the time they were 30. The places that I saw that trend bucked, was where young people were given a significant role in the life of the church. I’m not talking about a tokenistic “little Johnny can take around the offering plate”, though it might start there. This was more about the church knowing and recognising those young people’s skills, passions and abilities and offering them space to explore those in the context of the church. This may have been in participating in upfront worship because they love to play an instrument or sing. It may have been giving them responsibility behind the scenes at the sound desk because they loved electronics. It might have been to encourage a young person to share a testimony or give them space and assistance to preach a sermon. It may have been to support them in a fund raising or social justice project for a cause they were passionate about.
This could not have been possible without significant adult relationships outside the immediate family. This is touted as one of the most important factors for young people staying in church. Adults, beyond parents or only the youth leaders, needed to know and be engaged with young people. They had to have conversations that revolved around that young person’s life. They had to be genuinely interested in and concerned for that young person’s spiritual life. They had to ask the theological questions and be prepared to step into the present lived experience of that young person. These were relationships that had to go beyond Sunday and the four walls of the church building, but enter into the realms of school life, home safety, birthday parties, weddings, and even trauma. Some of my most significant moments in youth ministry were turning up for young people at a Police Station to support an AVO application, a hospital after an assault, a court case, and a few weddings years after I ceased being their Youth Pastor. In my current church, I recently heard the testimony of a young person thanking the youth leaders and a couple of other adults for all their support and helping her and two others become leaders in their own right. These adults had helped the three of them to better see how God was at work in their lives.
Sexuality continues to be a very important issue to wrestle with sensitively but openly and honestly. Youth and young adults are at a stage where they are becoming increasingly aware of their sexuality, gender identity and may be sexually active. Dismissing valid questions with an overly simplistic “just don’t do it” is not helpful. Church needs to be a safe place where these questions can be explored. Two of the best examples of this were having a qualified Christian Sex Therapist come and talk frankly about this topic, and former Uniting Church President Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney addressing young adults on a theology of decision making. The therapist’s vast knowledge of the topic, lack of embarrassment, and willingness to engage, meant the young people in attendance left with a far better toolkit to understand sexuality. Rev. Prof. Dutney’s approach challenged young adults to think about how we make decisions, who we are considering in the process and what that might mean for sexual expression.
Youth ministry has been a wonderful blessing and a powerful space for seeing God move in the lives of young people as they wrestle, mature, and make decisions that shape their future as well as that of the Church.
Dr Katherine Grocott
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