Growing in the Body
by Karen Matthias-Long (May / June 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 3)
Sarah, a ninth-grade confirmation student, came to speak with me. “I’m annoyed with my class,” she sighed. “Out of the eight of us, only two of us are going to stay involved after we’re confirmed.” Sarah’s concern is one that the whole church has had over the years. The problem of confirmation dropout has been discussed ad nauseam. Many a church deals with this by evaluating its confirmation program and redesigning it. But, what if it’s not all about program?
While Sarah recognizes her own need to be part of the body of Christ, her peers do not. They probably do not even understand the terminology “body of Christ.” Those words are a foreign language to them. How do we translate it in ways they’ll understand?
|The church needs to do less translating through talking. The best way to understand “the body of Christ” is to experience it, to live it.|
The church needs to do less translating through talking. The best way to understand “the body of Christ” is to experience it, to live it. The question then becomes, What opportunities can we provide youth so that they can experience the body of Christ? We need to provide opportunities for them to live it with their peers, with folks of all ages, and with people beyond their own church doors. First and foremost, they need to experience this at an early age.
Growing: Starting Early
If churches want youth to be fully incorporated into the church by the time they have completed confirmation, they need to think about “doing” youth ministry at an earlier age. By the time youth are in middle school, many are already overloaded with commitments. They have already found the avenues in which to use their gifts. It is too late to expect them to jump in and be part of church activities.
Youth groups need to start earlier. Such youth groups would look different than most middle-school and senior-high youth groups in that they would involve the whole family. (Sometimes the church does a disservice to families — and to young people — by separating them into age-specific groups. Family members go their separate ways enough without having the church add to that separation). Plan events that interest children, but invite the whole family to participate. Invite the children to offer their ideas of things they would like to do together.
The church often seems to forget that it is not made up only of adults. The body of Christ consists of individuals of all ages with their various gifts. Congregations need to look for opportunities and make the effort to invite children to participate in its various ministries. While many children are involved in the educational and worship ministries of the church, how many are involved in service, witness, and support?
We need to think “outside the box” when it comes to thinking of ways to involve children in ministry. Inviting a child to serve with the altar guild (with a parent, perhaps) could help the child learn reverence for the worship space and feel good about his/her contribution. Invite children to go on Meals on Wheels deliveries — the folks they serve will appreciate seeing young faces, and the children will learn to appreciate older adults.
Invite children to design church bulletins, suggest hymns for worship, write letters to missionaries, visit shut-ins, and tithe their allowance. There are all kinds of opportunities for children to use their gifts. The earlier they become involved and feel good about their contributions, the more they will internalize what it means to be the body of Christ. They will feel that they belong.
Many churches already offer intergenerational programs such as Rally Day or Advent workshops. These kinds of events should be encouraged. After all, the church is one of the few places where people of all ages can gather. This is a gift that should not be overlooked! Whatever the event, it is important that young people are included in the planning process. They offer a fresh perspective and their own gifts.
In our congregation, for instance, youth were invited to serve on our Christmas program planning committee. As a result, they volunteered to direct and write the script for this year’s Christmas pageant. By serving on this committee, they were able to connect with adult members of our church and know that their contribution was valued.
Sometimes a youth group can begin a cross-generational ministry. A pastor at a church in nearby Allentown began a “prayer scarf” ministry with older youth. She taught them how to knit. Soon younger children were asking to learn how to knit. Eventually, the group issued an invitation to the whole congregation to participate in the prayer scarf ministry. Now people of all ages gather weekly to knit scarves, share faith stories, and pray. A prayer group like this not only helps the youth see the body of Christ in their midst, but through their prayer offerings, they feel connected to the body of Christ in the world.
Growing: Beyond Doors
Youth need to experience the body of Christ at a younger age and with individuals of all ages. They also need to experience the body of Christ that grows beyond their church doors. It is essential that youth see that ministry doesn’t operate in a vacuum, that they are connected to believers worldwide.
Last year, several youth from the congregation I serve asked if they could have a lock-in at the church. They didn’t want it to be exclusively for our youth group. Their goal was to get one hundred Lutheran youth and advisors to participate. For this to work, we learned that we needed to extend invitations to youth advisors and youth of other congregations to serve on the planning committee. If we had tried to plan it alone, the others would not have come. By inviting folks from other churches to help with the planning, we pulled it off. This experience helped our youth connect with youth from other congregations.
Participating in servant events, attending church camp, visiting other congregations, and attending regional and churchwide youth gatherings are other ways youth can experience the body of Christ beyond their own church doors. As church leaders, we must make sure our youth are aware of them and encourage them to participate. Youth, like adults, respond best to personal invitations.
Youth have a hunger to belong. They need the gifts the body of Christ has to offer them: support, encouragement, love, presence. The body of Christ needs their gifts, too. Growing the body of Christ means providing ways for them to live it — now.
Karen Matthias-Long, an associate in ministry, serves Jordan Lutheran Church, Orefield, Pennsylvania, as the director of congregational ministries. She has also written curriculum for Sunday school and confirmation.