A few weeks ago, I visited our new members class in order to talk about our congregation's youth ministry.
None of the people in this class have high school aged kids and yet I went anyway, believing it's important for everyone in our congregation to know and understand the purpose of our youth ministry, which I describe as being one of connection. In our youth ministry, we want to connect teens to other people (both adults and teens) and to Jesus.
Beyond knowing what the purpose of our youth ministry is, however, I also want new members to know that even if they never set foot in our youth room, they have an important role in our youth ministry: Talking to teens.
I tell new members their job each Sunday is to find a teen and talk to them. Shake their hand, ask their name, and ask them one question about their life. Then find that teen the next week, call them by name, and ask them something else about what they learned the week before. I tell them to repeat this, week in and week out.
I tell them this is important because it communicates care. I tell them it's important because as Chap Clark has long advocated, we need at least five adults investing in every teen in our congregation. Such a large investment necessitates the involvement of people outside our youth ministry's direct adult leadership circle. Such an investment is crucial to the well-being of teens, to their long-term faith formation, and to the future of our congregations. As recent research from the College Transition Project suggests, intergenerational relationships are key to the formation of sticky faith in teens. For teens to be part of the church beyond youth group, they must know the church.
To me, this makes sense. After all, I've seen the power of this in my own life. Consider Bill, one of the pillars of my home congregation.
Even though Bill wasn't a leader in my congregation's youth ministry, he knew me by name. Each week, he made a point of seeking me out on Sunday mornings and having a conversation with me, asking me simple questions about my life that communicated he cared. The next week, we'd talk more. Through the questions he asked, it was obvious he'd remembered what I'd told him the week before. I looked forward to seeing Bill each week and I think he also looked forward to seeing me.
Over the years, these short, ongoing, weekly conversations formed the basis of a relationship between Bill and I that I came to value, so much so that he attended my wedding 11 years ago. Each Christmas since, we exchanged Christmas cards. I looked forward to his yearly updates and especially to learning about how he finally took the plunge and became more involved in my home congregation's youth ministry by going on mission trips with them (when he was in his 70s!)
Though the youth ministry I grew up in was blessed with many caring adult leaders, without knowing it, Bill served in a different, perhaps even more valuable way: He connected me to our larger congregation and kept me from feeling invisible there. His conversations with me showed me that someone noticed me and that since he did, maybe I actually mattered – not just to our youth ministry, but to our congregation.
On Sunday, my mom called to tell me that Bill died. As she shared this with me, it was obvious she was in tears. I was, too.
Bill's seemingly small actions impacted me in a profound way and this Christmas, I suspect I'll grieve this loss all over again, when I go to write out our Christmas cards and see his name in my address book and when the card from him doesn't come.
Bill was a gift – not only to me, but to my home congregation.
As a teen, I valued that; As a youth worker, I'm deeply grateful for that and hopeful that my congregation's new members will take the time to converse with our teens, never knowing just how significant those conversations may turn out to be.