As states reopen, the conversations are raging in youth ministry circles about when and how to “reopen” our youth ministries.
My youth ministry will not be regathering this summer.
I'm using that word, regather, intentionally because even though we’re not gathering in person, we're open. We’re doing ministry. Good ministry.
Certainly, this decision wasn’t made lightly, nor was it made in a vacuum. It was made with a great deal of thought, conversations with various people (including parents and teens), and prayer.
Here are 8 reasons why we’re not regathering this summer… And why I don’t think you should be either.
1. We’re wrestling with when something is NOT just lawful, but beneficial. In our state of Illinois, we’re currently in Phase 3, which allows for gatherings of less than 10. Our youth ministry is larger than that. Of course, both President Trump and Governor Pritzker have now basically given churches permission to do what they want. But just because we can legally regather doesn’t mean we should. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23 - “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.”
2. We care about safety. On every mission trip I’ve ever taken teens on, I’ve stood in front of parents and said, “Safety is our number one priority.” If that’s true on a mission trip, why would that NOT be true now? We do not want to be the center of an outbreak of COVID-19 in our community.
3. We care about our neighbor and about public health. When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor” I’m pretty sure he meant, “Don’t kill them by infecting them with COVID-19.” Of course, loving our neighbor doesn’t just mean NOT infecting others; It also means not going out unless we have to in order to better protect those who must. As much as we’d like to regather in person for youth group, we certainly don’t have to.
4. Teens are actually having a better experience virtually than they would in-person right now. Because we care about our neighbor, public health, and safety, if we were to regather, we’d require teens to wear masks and social distance. I have a hard time imagining a scenario under which that would be a great experience for my teens. They do too. For that reason, as we keep wrestling with when to regather, we're continuing to ask ourselves this question: “At what point will people have a better experience in person than on-line?” When we can honestly answer that question with “YES” AND the law permits us to gather AND we believe it’s actually beneficial to do so, then we’ll regather.
5. Virtual youth group actually breaks down barriers for teens to participate. One of the things that has most surprised me about our virtual youth ministry is that we’ve had a steady stream of visitors… Many of whom have turned into regular participants. It seems that virtual youth group actually makes it EASIER for friends to join us. It requires less time of teens because they don’t have the commute to / from church; It eliminates the awkwardness of walking into a new place by yourself. In some ways, it even levels the playing field, allowing everybody to be seen and participate equally. What’s more, it also eliminates the issue of geography. Teens no longer have to be in the same place to participate. When they travel, they can continue to join us from wherever they are.
6. The church is FOR everyone. I know of several youth ministries who, in order to stay within the law (not the expanded one, but the actual law of 10 people or less) are currently having people sign up to participate in youth group. After eight teens sign up to participate, they’re saying “We’re full.” That’s about the MOST unwelcoming thing I can possibly imagine. How can a church be full? Somehow, I cannot for a second believe that Jesus – who practiced radical hospitality and welcome – would respond that way to a pandemic. Continuing to meet virtually allows us to remain open and welcoming to ALL who want to participate.
7. The church has always been called to serve the most vulnerable in our society. In a lot of ways, it feels like the most vulnerable among us are currently those who are sick or at higher risk for becoming especially sick if they were to contract COVID-19. I’ve heard a lot of youth workers argue that this doesn’t pertain to us because our ministries are not typically filled with the senior citizens who are particularly vulnerable. That may be true, but what about your leaders? Are any of them high risk? Do any of them live with people who are? Do any of them have babies? And what about the teens themselves? Do any of them have asthma? Those are all things that can make people (or their families) more high risk. I don’t know about you, but I want my ministry to be one centered on these individuals. Rather than say, “I hope you self-select out” or “Maybe this isn’t the best time for you to join us”, I want our ministry to be equally accessible to vulnerable teens and leaders as everyone else. If it’s not, I might actually call that discrimination.
8. By not regathering yet, we’re giving ourselves time to figure out what’s next. Because we haven’t been gathering in person, when we do regather, we have something of a clean slate. We have the chance to start fresh and create something that can better meet the needs of our teens and our communities. We’ll never do that if we’re just trying to regather as quickly as possible.
So friends, let’s take a breath.
Let’s not just rush to regather because everyone else around us seems to be.
Let’s recognize the unique ways that virtual ministry might actually work to our advantage and leverage this moment to make changes so that when we regather, we can be the church that God intends for us to be – a church that loves not only the people on our rosters but our neighbors so much so that we do what’s best for them and our entire community.