Children’s Church is the Church

By Rodger Nishioka

one-eared-mickeyIn their book, The Godbearing Life, which has now become a youth ministry standard, Kenda Creasy Dean who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and Ron Foster, pastor of a United Methodist congregation, identify one of the most problematic models traditional youth ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.”  In their description, the congregation and its ministry form the head of Mickey Mouse while youth ministry forms one ear that, like the Mickey Mouse image, is barely attached to the head.  The problem, they say, is that young people grow up with an understanding that youth ministry is only tangentially connected to the life of the whole church if it is connected at all.  They view youth ministry as something that is separate.  This view ends up reinforcing the natural egocentrism of adolescence and while that may suffice for a while, when young people grow up, they find themselves bereft of any understanding of church and the whole church’s ministry and their part in it.  That is when they drift away.  Tragically, we set them up for this by locating their ministry as something apart from the rest of the church.  This analogy is potent as we consider the place of children in the church.

In too many congregations, our children are “dismissed” to go to “children’s church” or something like it either a few minutes into the congregation’s worship or in place of being present in the congregation’s worship at all.  As far as I can tell, this is a 20th century phenomenon.  In reviewing session minutes from Presbyterian congregations in the archives here at Columbia Theological Seminary, this action of sending children out of worship began in the 1950s at the height of the post-war baby boom.  Prior to this, no such thing existed.  Children were in the whole of worship with their families.  But in the years following the second world war with the tremendous influx of newborns, congregations began looking for immediate and cost effective ways to gain more space in the sanctuary to accommodate all these young families and their children and some inventive pastor or church educator thought about sending the children out to make more space for adults and thus, the phenomenon of “dismissing” children from worship was born.  If a generation runs approximately 20 years, then we are into our third generation of this experience and it has become normative for us all.  Indeed, when I have preached in congregations where there is now plenty of room for all ages to worship together, church after church still sends children out of worship because “that’s what we have always done.”  The truth is, that is NOT what we have always done and even more, we are now reaping what we have sown.

We have sown three generations of children leaving or never worshipping with us, and it is no wonder that so many find worship boring and incomprehensible when they come of age and are expected to join us.  Further, when I suggest that children remain with us during the whole of worship, some of the loudest objections come from some young parents who want worship to be a time for them when they do not have to worry about their child’s behavior.  My own sense is that this reflects the current belief among developmental theorists that adolescence is extending well into young adulthood and what else is a true sign of adolescence but the primary focus on one’s own needs over others.  And after all, these parents of young children experienced the pattern of a separate “adult worship” and “children’s worship” when they were young so is not that what church is supposed to be like?

Here is the greatest problem I find in separating our children from us in the worship of God.  In Matthew’s gospel, he relays the story also found in Mark and Luke about Jesus encountering little children.  Parents are bringing their children to Jesus because they want their daughters and sons to meet him, but the disciples turn them away.  Jesus tells the disciples to , “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  (Matt. 19:14).  Readers of Matthew know that the gospel writer often uses the words “kingdom of heaven”  euphemistically for “God.”  Given the quote from Jesus, he seems to be telling us all that God belongs to children.  This is unique, truly.  I can find no other place in the gospels where God is said to belong to anyone.  It seems that there is something about children that they alone are named as the ones who possess God.  For me, then, the question of children and the church is first and foremost a theological one.  If we are called as the body of Christ to worship God and to glorify God and to enjoy God (as the Westminster divines tell us in the catechism), then does it not make sense that those to whom God is said to belong, our children, should at least be present among us?   In fact, should not our children be leading us in this endeavor for which we were created?

There is no “children’s church” separate from the “church.”  Children’s church IS the church.  Amen.


Rodger Nishioka is the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

Getting Out of the Rut, then Moving Toward Abundant Joy

By Sophie Maness

Joy smallTwenty-five years of working in the church is a mere “drop in the bucket” to the length of time that many of the education models of the church have been in existence. Studies and personal experiences regarding current trends verify that a large percentage of individuals and families come for only one hour on Sunday mornings, and inconsistently at that. Many who are paid to work in the church, as well as volunteers, know the old models have lost much of their effectiveness due to changing rhythms in our culture.

I have worked with amazing volunteers, who have done – and continue to do – great work on Sunday mornings. Still, if a child comes to Sunday / Church school every Sunday, never missing, even on vacation, from pre-school age through senior year in high school, that child in the number of hours of Christian Education from Church School, will have received the equivalent of a first grade education. We are falling short and we know it.

I, for one, have been frustrated along with many of my colleagues. We have likened it to the dry bones of Ezekiel. It is time to let the Spirit move and put a new flesh on our education practices in the life of the church.

I hope we can dream about what will bring families together for learning and fellowship, rather than to separate them due to scheduling that limits participation.  Hearing the stories of our faith with and from our families and neighbors is an involvement that promotes greater understanding. This environment tends to open up better conversation, more opportunities for service, more creative expressions of joy and added room for the spirit to move.

Where can we find that common ground of learning the stories of our faith and living out those stories in partnership with all our neighbors? I think the ground is fertile, and with a little exploring we can and will come up with new models.

Noted writer, G.K. Chesterton gave us, “The gigantic advantage of the Christian is joy.” For me, part of that joy plays out by living in a fellowship of believers willing to dream about possibilities and new ways of living into our rich Presbyterian identity. So how we do we begin to move from the comfortable and familiar to the bold dream?

For me that joy came when we were planning the children’s piece of a day of service for our church. We put several children on our committee. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. We had several adults as well. Having children on the committee meant we needed to be organized and clear. My hope is we are that way anyway, but this was a new and healthy push. The children asked honest questions, had great ideas and loved being included! The joy was experienced by all!! The children felt like valued members of the planning. The adults had a ball getting to know the kids. Our planning was richer and our hospitality was wider. We kept our meetings short and to the point. We had a little snack and lots of laughter. ALL the adults said, “I wish all church committees, could be like this.”

Yes, it was not a hard task, but the inclusion of all ages, and the cross generational connections were giving voice to a deeper hunger of being a part of the faith community.

This small experience has helped me feel a little more bold in tackling bigger pieces, so one thing at a time. First up for us is VBS.

Although there are some churches who have moved away from it, the basic model for Vacation Bible School for us has been the nine to noon, Monday through Friday model. It is comfortable and familiar. We know how to do it, and it has gone really well in the past.

What I see now is that it is getting harder and harder to pull off every year. The children have a ball, but the adult volunteers are worn to a frazzle. When we are frazzled, even the most dedicated find it challenging to love children into the faith. The reality is that getting enough volunteers, when more and more women are going back to work, makes pulling off the traditional daytime VBS almost impossible.  Surviving VBS is not nearly as appealing as thriving in VBS.

My hope is to soon pull together a group from our church who will dream with me about our priorities: (1) nurturing children in their faith development, (2) connecting with our community, (3) planning creatively to move toward rhythms that make room for the spirit to have its way with us, not the frazzle of moving from one thing to another of our culture.

What I hope for our church and others is permission to play with possibilities. When we play well there is common ground and lots of grace. It does not have to be perfect to glorify God.

It is time to be bold in our exploration of new models. We are in the midst of change and our tradition is about reforming, so let’s reform what is no longer working very well.

I am grateful to be in a place willing to dream. One model at a time, we will watch for God’s leading how to put new flesh on dry bones.


Sophie Maness is a life-long Presbyterian and a certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church USA and serves as Director of Children’s Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, TN. Her calling is to educational ministry because she loves the ah-ha moment when people of any age connect their faith and their life, especially children.

Image: Grzegorz Mordecki/shutterstock.com

Let the Children Come

hands old and youngToday we aren’t posting new material, but pointing everyone back to the fabulous Theresa Cho and her blog Still Waters. Theresa and the saints at St. John’s Presbyterian Church create masterful, meaningful worship experiences for God’s children of all ages. Check out these two posts in particular (and while you’re on Theresa’s blog, check out the wonderful prayer stations!)

Theresa shares some of the challenge of being a parent and in worship leader or participant and offers some tips on welcoming children (and their parents) in worship from their experience in making worship intergenerational at St. John’s.

Let the Children Come – Intergenerational Worship

Intergenerational worship based on different learning styles sounds great! But how do you get from here to there? You make change along the way. Theresa shares the step-by-step experiment they led to increase variety and flexibility within worship. Hint: She also highlights Storypath, the new online resources from Union Presbyterian Seminary to connect children’s literature with the lectionary and biblical/theological themes.

A Disciplined Experiment on Changing Worship


Theresa Cho is the Co-Pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA and blogs at Still Waters.

A Child Speaks About Church

By Steve Lindsley and Lynn Turnage

Hey.child reading bible small

HEY!

Down here….

Yes, thanks.  Hello.  It’s me.  I’m a kid in your church. Nice to meet you.

I’m sure you’ve seen me before.  I’m the one who sits with my family in front of you in worship every Sunday. Remember that blur you saw running around the fellowship hall at the church potluck dinner last week?  Yours truly.  I sang a stellar solo in the children’s choir last month; I’m sure you remember.

Anyway, now that I have your attention, I thought I’d share with you what I need from the church.  Because there are a whole lot of ideas out there about what kids need to grow in the faith and stick with the church when we become grown-ups ourselves.  Thing is, no one’s bothering to ask us kids what we think.  So here are some thoughts to ponder:

Just tell me the Bible story.  I know it sounds simple enough, but it’s amazing how complicated this can get.  Honestly, I don’t need gimmicks, flash, fluff.  If I want entertainment I’ll ask my parents to take me to the movies.  I don’t need a Vacation Bible School that “takes me on an Amazon expedition” or involves surfing, camping or clowns.  And please, don’t let some random B-rate Bible cartoon video do it for you.  I want you to tell me the Bible story. You. Me. The Bible. That’s it.

Remember: I can’t sit still for long.  I know, shocker.  Don’t blame me; God made me this way.  Anyway, just make your story-telling segments a little shorter and cut to the chase, and help me experience the story with as many of my senses as possible.  And when it comes to worship,  give me something to do – “worship bags” with chenille sticks, or some paper or mandalas and good crayons or markers would be great (although I’d suggest changing them out frequently so I’m not coloring the same picture of Jesus every week).

Give me, at the bare minimum, an hour a month with the pastor.  This would be awesome. Because sometimes it feels like you all think that I’m too little or too young for the pastor.  Which is just silly, if you ask me (see: scripture on Jesus and the children).  So give me time with him or her.  Let them tell me a Bible story or take me on a nature walk or just have doughnuts with me.  You tell me all the time how important the pastor is. Well, I’m important too; so it’d be the perfect match, right?

My best adult teachers/leaders/volunteers are the ones that I KNOW care about me.  Makes sense.  Because they’re not there out of some sense of obligation, or because they were guilted into it by a desperate teacher recruitment committee member.  They’re there because they want to be there, because they genuinely like me.  And because they like me, they tell the stories better, play the games better, teach better. So I learn more.  And I make an adult friend too.  Because I really like it when someone calls me by name and says “HI!”  The don’t have to comment on how cute I look, just call my name in a nice voice.

Give me some responsibility in the church. See, here’s the thing: you expect me to be a bystander in church until I hit some age (18? 22?) when voila!, I’m suddenly supposed to dive in and do everything.  Honestly, that’s silly.  If you want me to grow up committed to and participating in the life of the church, you need to empower me to do that now.  I’d make a great usher on Sunday morning.  I know I could help serve food at the weekly homeless meal if you’d be there to help me.

I like to be with my family and all ages together in worship.  There’s this tradition a lot of churches have in worship of escorting the kids out to some remote location following the “Children’s Time.”  Personally, I’m not a fan.  You think I don’t want to be in worship during the sermon because it’s “boring.” I actually listen to what they say and it sticks with me – as you are well aware in other contexts, I’m great at remembering everything you adults say.  All things being equal, I’d rather stay in worship with my church family – we call ourselves a family, right?  I might get a little antsy (worship bags will help).  But I promise you I won’t fall asleep like that dude in front of me every week.  Surely you’ve seen him.

So that’s it, I guess.  Mainly just focus on telling the story and letting that be the focus.  If you do that, I have a pretty good feeling I’ll stick around in church for a long time.


Steve Lindsley is Pastor/Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, NC.  Lynn Turnage is Director of Children and Family Ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC.

Image: Andi Berger/shutterstock.com

Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

Beginning today, we’re changing up the NEXT Church blog a bit. We’ll continue to post good content, but each month will have a different theme or lens for what’s NEXT. We’ve asked leaders across the PC(USA) to curate a month of blog content based on their own passion in ministry. This does two things:

  1. Allows us to delve more deeply into specific topics, and
  2. Increases the number and variety of voices from whom we’re hearing as we practice ministry in the church that is becoming.

Thanks to Steve Lindsley and Lynn Turnage for curating this first month as we talk about what’s now and what’s next in faith formation of children.

*****

It’s time to talk children!

Over the next weeks, you will hear from various folks who are pastors, theologians, advocates, educators, parents, elders – or some combination of these – all who are passionate about children in church, children in worship, and children’s faith formation.

Who are the primary shapers of children’s faith? The church, the pastors, the officers, the teachers, and we know parents are the primary educators.

This series of blog posts brings together all of these voices as we think about forming the faith of children in the church, and most importantly in worship.

We know we are blessed to have children in our churches (what church doesn’t want more of them?!), and still we encounter people who could care less or “don’t know what to do with them” or are weary (or scared?) of children’s energy.

So now’s the time to think about the issues, attitudes and perspectives we juggle, what parents are thinking, what children have to say, and WHY we care. Enjoy these gifts of God!


Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

By Adam J. Copeland

parent child smallWatchers of religion online in recent months will likely have seen Rachel Held Evan’s CNN Belief Blog piece flying around the internet, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” (Most classify millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000.) After Rachel’s post was shared thousands of times via social media, other bloggers penned responses to Rachel’s piece.

Brian McCracken wrote in the Washington Post that the way to keep millennials in the church is to keep church “uncool.”

A Lutheran bishop, James Hazelwood asked, “Is Rachel Held Evans Right?” and Rachel linked to the post on her blog. Christopher Smith called for a “Slow Church” way forward, emphasizing dialogue with one and all.

Though the hubbub about millennials has died down for now, I’ve continued to ponder faith development and children.

I teach at a church-related college and am working on a book in which 20-somethings share essays about wrestling with faith and college. As I read through dozens of submissions for the book, a theme surfaced.

Too many millennials have reflected on their faith saying, in part….“I just went through the church motions until college. I mean, my parents took me to church growing up, but it didn’t mean anything. My parents didn’t seem to care. Not until college did I being to wonder, ‘What is this faith stuff anyway?’”

The millennial writers share deep, meaningful, diverse, beautiful stories. Certainly there is much more to the essays than this thread. And yes, certainly, there are some developmental issues at play here.

But, with all the millennial-related blog posts swirling around the Internet, what might parents to do to prepare their children for the transition to college or a workplace? How, today, do we raise a child in the faith?

If the essays that have come across my desk are any indication, a good start is a simple one: talk about faith.

Faith communities are essential, of course, but for many of us a solid faith foundation is first built at home. So parents, do your best to connect all of living to faith. Talking about God’s blessing—and God’s call— at home, in the car, over meals, even online.

One simple way to support the faith of our children is to teach prayer practices. And, as is true with much of the faith, sometimes it’s best to learn by doing. Praying at meals and before bedtime can begin a lifelong practice of prayer. Silence or sabbath, too, can be prayerful if approached in a meditative, thoughtful way focused on God. (See MaryAnn McKibben-Dana’s new book, “Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.”)

In my family growing up, discussing the sermon after worship was a sort of Olympic sport. Most young children won’t be up for debating the finer points of the sermon each Sunday, but they will gain a lot if parents model engaged, thoughtful reflection on worship and Christian education. Inviting children into a conversation about the Bible stories encountered on Sunday shows that faith matters beyond Sunday at noon.

One of the recurring themes of the essays I’m working through is millennials’ faith struggles when met with pain, suffering, or loss. After all, what does God have to do with disease or natural disaster?

When parents are honest about their faith lives—the joys, sorrows, and struggles—they can model for their children a resilient, thoughtful faith that embraces the ups and downs of live.

Faith is a head thing, after all, but it’s also a direction of the heart.

At the risk of being flippant, if parents believe it’s worth the trouble to take their children to church in the first place then it behooves them not to stop there. Veggie Tales, though fun, don’t substitute for a committed life of discipleship.

Christianity, after all, is a holistic faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ matters not just for an hour on Sunday, but for the whole of life, for the whole of the world.

Why are millennials leaving the church? Who knows and, let’s be real, many of the reasons are probably beyond our immediate control. What we can control, though, is our commitment to living out the faith we teach our children, the faith in which we baptize.


Adam Copeland CCAdam J. Copeland is Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he teaches in the department of religion. He blogs at A Wee Blether (http://adamjcopeland.com) and tweets @ajc123.

Image Credits: steeple: Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock; parent and child: kuma/shutterstock

The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

By Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

Mission Shift in Christian Education

children_youth_1By Jen James

In the conversations about what is next for the Church, I hear a lot of talk about new ways of worship, different methods to engage the community in mission, how to reach young adults, and ways to build new worshipping communities.  What I don’t hear a lot about is how this conversation affects Christian Education.  Some pastors wish their over-zealous educators would take it down a notch and just dissolve their dwindling Church School ministry that seems to be draining energy and resources.  Some churches long for the days when education classes were bursting at the seams – a time when people were “serious” about their faith and were committed to reading the Bible.  For those of us who work in Children, Youth, and Adult Ministries, it can sometimes feel like the Church is on the move and we are grasping for a seat on the train.

The reality is this area of ministry can be the very catalyst for change within a church and its community. Educational ministries are geared to reach the very heartbeat of our communities – its children, youth, and young adults. But, authentic outreach is not going to happen with the best Vacation Bible School in town, or a flashy Sunday night Youth Group complete with a band and a super hip Youth Director, or by purchasing the next great curriculum that guarantees children and youth will love learning about God by bringing the fun back to Sunday School. While these ministry tools aren’t bad, the problem is we tend to think these will attract flocks of people to our diminishing churches. At best, these programs serve those in our churches.  At worst, they are attracting Christians from neighboring churches where the programs aren’t as grand in a twisted sort of membership poaching.  If we are honest, these attractional tools aren’t making authentic and lasting connections with the community.

One place I have witnessed the most authentic community partnership is with local schools. Christian Education is built on a foundation of loving and caring for children, youth, and young adults. Our very DNA is built to be in this kind of partnership. In my current ministry context, the church I serve has embraced that part of our ministry with children and youth is to reach out to local schools. This is not just a once a year partnership like providing food baskets at Christmas. This is an ongoing relationship that takes years to build. It is continuing to support the needs of the schools until the school community recognizes that the church genuinely cares about its students, staff, and families.  It means loving families for the sake of the community and not for the sake of church membership.  There is no better place to reach every child in your community — regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status — than in a local school.  Perhaps if we allow ourselves to be transformed by those relationships, the transformation of our churches will follow.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas to get you started partnering with a local school:

  • Sign up for the school e-newsletter to read about upcoming events, needs, and volunteer opportunities
  • Have a member of your church join the PTA
  • Tithe your Christian Education budget and set aside that money for the needs of local schools
  • Volunteer at the school either for an ongoing need or for a special event
  • Support school fundraisers (our church buys our mulch each year from the booster mulch sale)
  • Sponsor a Booster Ad in in the Drama Club program or a seasonal sports program
  • Attend sporting events, concerts, and shows as a church
  • Send a note of appreciation from your church on Teacher/Principal Appreciation Week
  • Schedule a time to meet the Principal, just to say hello and let them know the church is there if they ever have a need
  • Advertise for upcoming school events in your church newsletter and bulletin
  • Donate grocery gift cards for school counselors to keep on hand for when families are in crisis
  • Become a sponsor for school programs
  • Get involved in a high school Baccalaureate – if they don’t have one, offer to host and help organize one
  • Volunteer at the All Night Grad Party
  • Offer to purchase yearbooks for those students whose families can’t afford one.

jen_jamesJen James is the Director of Family and Adult Ministries at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. She just completed her M. Div. at Wesley Theological Seminary.

 

The Most of These

by Kim McNeill

Last week, with the help of dedicated youth advisors, I took a group of middle schoolers from University Presbyterian to Washington, DC for a spring break service trip to learn about homelessness and poverty. They met, befriended, and served those who are currently facing the hard realities of life on the street.

Our youth are as blissful and sheltered as any 12-14 year olds. They are dedicated to church and youth group but know little about what it means to live out their faith in the world. In DC, our youth spent an evening with Andre who is currently homeless and Eric who has struggled with homelessness for much of his life. Our young people were shocked when they heard just how easy it was for Eric and Andre to become homeless. They were appalled to hear what they each go through living on the street. They were saddened to learn how cruel others can be to those who have so little.

As they talked with Eric and Andre, I witnessed their stereotypes of “the least of these” shatter right before my very eyes. By getting to know these two incredible guys, homelessness became less of a problem to be solved by adults. Homelessness became their problem to face head on because it was happening to their new friends. After connecting with Eric and Andre, these sheltered youth served in the city with new eyes. Those in line for meatballs and mashed potatoes weren’t just an issue, they were people, children of God, with gifts and personalities just like those middle school youth. In hearing Eric’s and Andre’s stories, they learned that human connection and seeing the image of God in others is the first step in serving one another and living out their faith. I can’t help but think that our youth need more of this in the NEXT church: more opportunities to truly connect with those in need and more occasions to have their blissful ignorance wiped away with powerful, personal conversations.

Attending to the needs of our youth workers is vital if we want our churches to offer such life-altering and faith forming experiences to our young people. Supporting and enabling youth workers is the one of the best gifts a church can give its youth. Churches must equip youth workers with educational opportunities in scripture, theology, and psychology so they are best able to put new experiences and conversations with “the least of these” in the context of a young person’s developing faith. Our continuing education should help youth workers understand how to stop over-planning and start trusting the Holy Spirit (especially when structure and planning helps us youth workers keep our sanity on many days). Congregations must support Sabbath-keeping for our youth workers. In the midst of irregular schedules and instant access via texting and the internet, youth workers need to experience a holy Sabbath rest to have the energy to encourage and support youth in new and challenging situations. As a church community we must continue to find ways to connect youth workers to one another for companionship and support from those who understand where they are coming from.

As we live into the NEXT church, how will you and your congregation encourage, support and sustain your volunteer and paid youth workers? What supporting role will you play in helping our youth have the powerful experience of being the church in the world?


kimKim McNeill is the Staff Associate for Youth and Congregational Life at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC where she’s served for over five years. Prior to that, Kim worked in Presbyterian Camp and Conference Ministry. This summer she’ll enjoy the gift of her first Sabbatical, something she thinks all those in ministry need to stay spiritually healthy and energized for the work before us.