Recent research from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) has revealed that connecting teens to their faith communities helps them to develop a lasting & consequential faith.
As I’m currently conducting a thorough assessment of my youth ministry, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this. In light of this finding by the NSYR, I had hoped that my assessment would reveal that one of the strengths of our congregation was, indeed, this connection between people of different generations.
What I’ve found is that our congregation DOES care deeply about our youth ministry. In fact, if anyone threatened to “kill” our youth ministry, I have no doubt that our congregation would be up in arms.
Yet, the old adage is still true: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Because our ministry impacts such a small percentage of the congregation and meets in an obscure, somewhat isolated location that few people ever see, for the most part, despite caring deeply about our youth ministry, our congregation is disconnected from it. People don’t understand what we do, let alone why we do it.
That’s something that’s incredibly discouraging.
Yet, last Sunday at our Youth Sunday service I saw something that gave me hope amidst this discouragement.
At my church, Youth Sunday is the Sunday when our youth literally take over the service. They choose the theme, fill the majority of roles during the service, and even preach. In fact, my church has a long & sordid history of allowing seniors to give Senior Sermons on Youth Sunday that range from a series of “shout outs” to more meaningful testimonies of their faith. More recently, we’ve also begun another Youth Sunday tradition: The Blessing of the Seniors.
Our congregation has always been incredibly gracious about Youth Sunday: Allowing for music, reflections, & mistakes that normally wouldn’t be tolerated quite so well. Yet, this year, there was a lot that legitimately went really well during this service – A lot that was moving; A lot that pointed to how greatly God is moving in & through our students & the congregation that they’re a part of.
But by far, the most moving part of the morning came during our 7:30 service, the smallest of our church’s three services & the one that has the least amount of generational diversity. Looking down from the balcony during this service, you’ll see a sea of gray hair and bald heads. The overwhelming majority of people who attend this service are old; Seniors citizens in their 70s.
With the exception of one family: Marcy’s.
Marcy is a high school senior who has grown up attending this service with her mom & grandma. Yet, because she lectors & anoints people during our healing services, Marcy doesn’t just attend this service; She’s actually a vital part of it.
Because of that, Marcy was one of two seniors to give their sermons at this service this. And though we don’t typically include the Blessing of the Seniors at this service, this year, Marcy opted to receive hers at this service, fitting since as our Pastor remarked, “These are Marcy’s people.”
When the time came for the Senior Blessing, Marcy & her parents came forward to respond to several questions, after which we sent Marcy into the aisle & asked the congregation to lay hands on her as we prayed over her, something that’s honestly a little uncomfortable for Lutherans.
Yet, at the 7:30 service, the congregation literally flooded into the aisle & surrounded Marcy, eager to lay hands on her & bless her in the same way that she’s blessed them by choosing to be part of this unlikely community.
As I watched the scene unfold before me, I was struck by the image of these old, wrinkled, arthritic hands extended toward Marcy in a sign of blessing. These were the hands of the Saints of our Congregation; Of people who give generously to our congregation & in so doing, support our youth ministry. For decades, these are the hands that have faithfully & compassionately served the people of our church & our community: Holding babies; Caring for the sick; Cooking meals & feeding the poor; Building houses for those who have lost theirs; Teaching Sunday School; Stocking our kitchen; Preparing communion; & Praying for our world, our church, & our church’s people. These hands have held others as they’ve walked together through life – sharing joys & burdens with one another. These hands represent the well-lived lives of faithful people.
As these hands extended toward Marcy they also represented something else to me: The power of a connection between young & old that even my thorough assessment failed to reveal. The withered, wrinkled hands that stretched over Marcy represented the power of this community.
A power that was clearly seen when our prayer for Marcy ended & I looked around & saw tears: In Marcy’s eyes; In her parents eyes; And in the eyes of the senior citizens who have watched Marcy grow up, & who have loved, guided, supported, & prayed for her & will continue to do so even after she leaves for college.
It’s to this community that Marcy will return next fall, when she’s home on college breaks.
I have no doubt that this community will be eager to embrace Marcy & to hear about her experiences in college.
And its that connection – far more than any talks I’ve given at youth group or any discussions that I’ve led – that will keep Marcy returning to our church & growing in her faith as she matures into an adult.
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