This year I celebrate 20 years of youth ministry leadership. I taught my first youth bible study group at Oak Forest Baptist Church in Chesterfield, VA when I was 18 years old. I can remember how special an experience it was at that age to share leadership among my peers and older adult mentors. Although I was no longer officially a part of the youth group (having just graduated high school), I appreciated the opportunity to transition out of what our church called “youth group” into full blown adulthood. Without the inclusive culture at OFBC, I may not have ended up in ministry today.
Having an opportunity to keep engaged in a peer group as a growing leader has an impact on how well a young person can transition from one stage of life to the next. Young people are much more likely to stay connected to the mission of the church when they can keep attending the community in a way that makes the most sense to them. Unfortunately, too many 18 year old youth feel abandoned by the church when they graduate high school because of the limited options they have in the church. Many are encouraged to simply graduate into the adult Sunday school class with their parents and grandparents without any intentional transition. As the Fuller Youth Institute puts it, “Giving seniors a ‘graduation Bible’ and hoping for the best just isn't cutting it.” Whether or not we like it, this oversight of transitional education has a direct correlation to the 50% of young people who leave the church after graduating high school.
Although I have personally benefitted from a transitional multi-generational ministry, there is plenty of researched reasoning and application behind implementing in our churches. Some schools call it “split classes”, “multi-grade classes”, “combination classes”, or “transitional education”. The goal is to provide intentional co-mentorship connections between younger youth, older youth, and adult supporters. Research shows that each young person is greatly benefited when surrounded by a team of five adults (Sticky Faith, 2016). If we can safely and effectively build community cross-generationally, it will make for a stronger faith and ministry together in our local churches throughout the PSWR.
Just a few years ago Disciples Home Mission began a campaign to raise awareness of the cross-generational nature of ministry for youth. One cannot simply provide pastoral care for a high school youth without considering effective communication with parents, siblings, and grandparents. Youth ministry incorporates ministry with children & teens & young adults & adults & seniors. The Rev. Dr. Oliva Updegrove, former Associate Minister at FCC Orange and current Minister of Family & Children’s Ministry for DHM, has adopted the “&” to symbolize the necessary connections to the generations that influence ministry for young people. Dr. Updegrove provides a bi-monthly newsletter with resources and events from around our General Church that promote “Ministries Across Generations.” In fact, DOCFamilyandChildren.org proudly proclaims the importance of “Connecting the Whole Body to the Whole Mission.” We cannot achieve this vision without being intentional about the connections between generations.
Transitional Ministry may be new to many of our churches, but it has been a part of our regional culture for quite some time. Having visited a majority of the active youth ministries in the PSWR, I can tell you that the dominant model we use in most of our churches is based on grade levels. However, some of our churches (and our largest regional church) have a transitional structure that defines “youth” quite differently. Almost all our African American, Hispanic, and Asian congregations operate in a transitional ministry structure. Youth and Young Adults do ministry together. Young Adults graduate from youth group when they can demonstrate a maturity that warrants the shift. Likewise, in many of our communities of color there is an intentional training program for young people to step into leadership in the church, whereas many Anglo congregations require very little leadership training in order to participate as an adult. It is in these diverse approaches that we are tasked to provide an effective and inclusive Youth and Young Adult Regional Ministry. It is quite a task, but we are making significant progress in finding an effective median.
Recently the PSWR Youth and Young Adult Ministry has responded to the research behind transitional education by providing opportunities for multi-generational discipleship. At UNITE2018 in Redondo Beach this past February, nearly 135 high school youth, young adults, and adult supporters joined together to build leadership and faith skills. At this conference, there was a deep sense that we were all learning and growing together in a balanced and respectful way. The end result was powerful: high school youth were performing as leaders at a level much higher than we have experienced at other regional events while our young adults/adults felt inspired by the energy of their excitement. UNITE2018 demonstrated that multi-generational ministry (with an emphasis on high school youth) nurtures healthy community and mutual learning.
There are some risks associated with multi-generational ministries that certainly need our undivided attention. We are tuned in to the influence of peer pressure and the access young adults have to things experienced in adulthood that high school youth do not. We also understand how important it is to provide education specific to the developmental stages of each participant. For these and other reasons, we strongly encourage and support church communities to provide chaperones at our regional conferences. Likewise, anyone over the age of 25 who is active participant in a Disciples Congregation is welcome to be trained as a camp counselor. Furthermore, it is the policy and practice for all regional youth and young adult events to have supervision of prepared and responsible adults who have undergone a criminal background check. The PSWR Youth and Young Adult Ministry holds the safety of our young people a high priority (evidenced by decades of well-organized and successful programming) and are committed to provide such adult leadership each time we gather together.
Regional youth and young adult ministry functions best when it provides generalized learning experiences that nurture connection among all our 110 congregations, life application for all participants, and faith formation of our young people. We provide these experiences in a diversity of ways: 1) Conferences, 2) Camps, 3) Retreats, 4) Leadership Training (i.e. YLT,
YIM, YALL), 5) Service Projects/Global Missions. PSWR Camps are intentionally age specific. Our Leadership Training ministries (YLT, YIM, and YALL) are also age specific. However, we are also working to address what Barna Research Group calls “vocational discipleship.” This is when we teach “young people about the integration of faith and occupation, helping them to better understand the concept of calling and emphasizing the meaning and theological significance of work (not just their potential for professional or financial success).” (Gen Z, 2018) In order to do this, it is essential that we begin to consider the traditional models of youth ministry (focusing on cognitive spiritual development) insufficient for preparing young people for the “real world” of adulthood. In other words, knowing about God is good, but we also need to help young people apply their faith to their calling in authentic and meaningful ways. The good news is, local congregations and regional ministries can work together to do this really well!
Where local youth ministries are able to provide in-depth biblical formation, Regional Youth and Young Adult Ministries have a broad capacity to provide spiritual support from all over the PSWR. As Disciples, this strikes a beautiful balance consistent to how we operate as an organized Church. Regional staff works to promote and empower local ministries by engaging faith with the resources and opportunities that impact communities in the PSWR and beyond. BUT, we are only able to provide these resources when local youth ministries trust that what we provide is safe and effective for their faith community.
The PSWR Youth and Young Adults Ministry promises to always provide the most effective, appropriate, and meaningful content possible within a safe environment of qualified adult supporters. We are committed to the vision of our General Church while honoring the diversity of faith and practice present in our local churches. With this promise, we are asking for your support. Regional Youth and Young Adult Ministries must start with a devoted and trusting partnership with local churches. None of us are our best without one another. The more we all work together to make it happen, the better our chances are for a stronger future in youth and young adult ministries. We must be willing to think outside the box to provide ministries that are welcoming to all young people in the PSWR. I would love the opportunity to continue the conversation with interested leaders so that we can strengthen our partnership in providing the best ministry possible for our young people. Why should we do this? Well, because the faith of our young people depends on it.
On the Journey Together in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin J. Barlow
Associate Regional Minister
For more information on ministries, organizations, and resources that support the concept of transitional education, please visit the following websites: www.youthbuild.org, www.stickyfaith.org, https://www.barna.com/product/gen-z/, http://www2.oaklandnet.com/government/o/DHS/s/YouthYoungAdults/OAK022075, https://naaee.org/eepro/blog/intergenerational-education