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?
Kim 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.