“Daddy, look! It’s your church!” shouted my 3 year-old.
“No, honey, it’s your church,” I counter in vain.
“No, it’s your church.”
“No. It’s your church!”
“It’s everybody’s church!!!!” she finally declares.
This back and forth has become a dependable script almost every time we pass our church. Both of my children went through this phase. And it really highlighted for me an important part of ministry for youth & children. A big part of why we play silly hide & seek games like “Sardines” with youth groups, and why we do lock-in sleep overs, and why we collaborate with them on Youth Sunday, is to give our youth the deep-seeded understanding that this is their church. A big part of why we lose youth after they get confirmed or graduate, is that many youth experience church as their parents’ church. Whether you have 2 kids or 500 kids in your church, one of the markers of successful youth ministry is when the youth feel like the church space is their space, the church members are their community, the ministries are their ministries. Sardines isn’t just Sardines. It’s a chance for our youth to learn the literal and metaphorical nooks & crannies of our churches better than our adult members do.
I imagine the theologians among us are chomping at the bit to comment, “Well actually, the church is Christ’s church.” Yes. And. We want the children of our churches to hear explicitly and implicitly in the way we engage them, “This church is your church, which means it is here to serve you. This church is your church, which means you have the power to serve through it. This church is your church, which means you are called to serve it. This church is your church, which means that you are loved for everything that you are exactly as you are unconditionally.”
With multi-church youth ministry, this philosophy hits a bit of a snag. Whose church gets to be their church? Which church gets to be the homebase for the youth program?
When we first started the OASIS Multi-Church Youth Ministry, one of the big questions was about where we would meet. On the one hand, we believed consistency was crucial to success, which would mean picking one place and sticking with it. On the other hand, we wanted to give our youth the chance to share their church space with their peers from other churches, which would mean rotating. For better and for worse, we balanced that tension by rotating host churches monthly. It gave kids the opportunity to play games in their spiritual home. It gave each church the chance to feel ownership over the program for two months out of the year. I would be lying if I said we didn’t hear any complaints about this compromise. And I would be lying if I didn’t second-guess it regularly. But it worked. Until March 15, 2020 that is, when none of the churches could host the youth program in-person.
How do we help our youth & children experience the ways church is their church when the church building is closed? When they can’t explore the nooks & crannies while playing Sardines? When they can’t stay up all night talking about nothing & everything at the lock-in? When Covid protocols mean there are no opportunities to do creative things with the sanctuary for worship only the youth of the church could get away with?
The obvious answer, say it with me: the church is not a building.
Sure, comfort and nostalgia in the physical building is an important piece of helping kids feel like the church is theirs. But the real trick for making our youth fully feel that this is their church, is when the people are their people. Not my parents’ friends. Not the people I have to tolerate while I wait for my parents to stop talking at coffee hour. But their friends. Their mentors. Their family.
Clergy, do your youth know that you are their pastor? How?
Lay ministers, do your youth know that you are their minister? How?
Volunteers, do your youth know that you are their mentor? How?
I suspect that I ended up getting ordained because the lay volunteers who helped run my Sunday School & Youth Group growing up are still people I reach out to and still people who reach out to me. That church was my church. And my sisters’ church. And my parents’ church. And no matter how many times we have to run the script, this church is my children’s church. And yes, okay theologians, it’s Christ’s church too. But here’s the fun twist: we are the Body of Christ. So indeed, this is our church. Do your youth know it’s theirs too?
Written by: Rev Jack Perkins Davidson