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Exploring Youth Ministry in the Church

The youth group at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg enjoys some street hockey. (Supplied Photo)

Rebecca Widdicombe has been involved in youth ministry at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg for the last one and a half years. She is currently sharing the job with two other youth leaders. Previously she worked as a youth minister for St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Toronto for three years, and during that time served as the Diocesan Area Youth Coordinator for the York-Scarborough Area. Sue Careless talked with her about youth ministry. 

SC: How many attend the youth group at St Margaret’s?

RW: We have one youth group that spans grades 7 – 12. We have 30 youth on our list and we see about 25 on a regular basis.

SC: When do you meet?

RW: We meet on Friday nights from 7 – 9pm for fun activities and food, and we end our evenings with Compline. On Sunday mornings the youth meet during the service for Sunday school. There are usually 13 – 15 youth on Fridays and 10 – 15 youth on Sundays. On Sunday mornings we often divide the group in two for discussion times – usually grades 7/8 together and then high school.

SC: Do your youth miss out on the worship and teaching of the Sunday morning service? 

RW: While we have a Friday night event every week, our teaching/Bible study time occurs during the sermon. Some older youth choose to stay upstairs once they hit their later high school years and we really encourage this.

It seems difficult to get around this conflict and I have heard that many youth leaders struggle with it. I think it is often one of the reasons youth ‘graduate out’ of church when they hit university – they’ve never really been to church, proper. At St. Margaret’s we try to make sure they are in church for the duration of the service on festival days and we invite them to play an active role in our Holy Week services. And we make sure they are getting as much of the liturgy before and after the sermon as possible. We also end our Friday “fun” evenings with Compline in the sanctuary so they have the opportunity to engage the whole of that liturgy [BCP p. 722].

SC: What competition is there from sports and entertainment with your Friday night youth group?

RW: I was surprised when I began doing youth work at St. Margaret’s to find this conflict non-existent. Just as there can be a stronger or weaker culture of regular Sunday attendance in a given parish, St. Margaret’s has a well-established culture of Friday night youth group. This means that children will grow up at church eagerly anticipating this Friday night commitment. Although youth ministry often has a quick turnover of leaders, the Friday night time slot has remained a constant at St. Margaret’s and I think that has helped – it is something unchanging and fixed. I think that’s attractive. And I think 7 – 9pm is also a good time slot! Sports and music lessons seem to be over by then.

SC: How many youth come from non-churchgoing families?  

Three of our youth are new to the church and attend without their families. One will be getting baptized and confirmed this year.

SC: How do you attract the un-churched, the friends of the church-going teens?

RW: To put it simply: I think what attracts youth from outside the church is actually church! I think a teenager who has come to youth group for the first time will find themselves in the midst of a community that is quite different from others they have encountered. The life of a teenager, it seems to me anyway, is remarkably sequestered: they play midfield on the soccer team, they sing alto in choir, they are a B student in math, and an A+ student in science; they are a particular type of person when they are at their Mom’s house, a different sort of person when they are at their Dad’s, and an entirely other person still when they are with their friends. Yet at the core of adolescence is a yearning to discover and live into an essential self. While the nature of their lives is somewhat fractured (and no doubt this is true of adults too, though in a less pressing sense) the Church sees teens as a complete whole. Good youth pastors want to know the whole of a young person standing in front of them – the good, the bad, the unpopular and unlikable, where they are coming from, who they are, and where they are going – and they want to remind them of their createdness, of how good they are and how loved. I think this is profoundly culturally dissident and deeply attractive to youth.

SC: Youth can come from a wide range of backgrounds: the preacher’s kids and the theologian’s children along with the un-churched. How do you create a level playing field and, at the same time, challenge everyone?

RW: When teaching a lesson or leading a Bible study it is important to have a key message that you want to get across, that you know will be accessible to everyone. Then it’s important to think through the various ways youth might engage this message, and to make space for their different expressions. It’s helpful to have more than one leader involved so you can break into smaller groups. It’s also a good idea to be prepared for the various ways teens might want to engage – some will silently take in a scripture passage and then immediately need to create; others will want to discuss; and still others might just want to listen to what the group and the leader have to say. It’s also a good idea to let the youth teach each other. There will be kids in every youth group who have a lot of the ‘textbook’ answers but when they are given the space to answer the questions of their peers, they learn a great deal in the process and often find the answer is more complicated than they initially thought.

SC: How do you break up cliques? 

RW: Frankly, I don’t think youth leaders need to worry too much about cliques. Obviously the group needs to adhere to the foundational Christian principle of loving one’s neighbours but that needn’t turn into forcing everyone to be BFFs [Best Friends Forever].

SC: There is a temptation in youth groups to be all fun and games while both service to others and prayer and teaching get downplayed. How do you find the balance?

RW: Last fall we asked the youth what they wanted this breakdown to look like. They told us they needed Fridays to be a fun release at the end of the school week and something they could easily bring friends to. And to our surprise they asked that we keep Sunday mornings focused on Scripture! We added Compline to our Friday nights so there is an aspect of worship. The youth love Compline and lead it themselves, taking turns each week singing the various cantor lines. This still feels like something they can bring friends to – there’s something about the old language in Compline that makes the service less intimidating, in that the strangeness of the old language creates a certain distance, and youth can engage with it wherever they are at. As they grow in their faith that distance lessens.

SC: What makes a church facility youth-friendly? Are youth looking for a big gym or a room to relax in with comfortable sofas and chairs?

RW: Ideally, the youth need a space to run around and a space to relax and hang out, a room they can go to before and after church events. It’s also important that this space be in a well-used part of the church – an isolated space is intimidating and leaves both youth and leaders feeling vulnerable.

SC: How do social media both help and hinder youth groups today?

RW: We don’t use social media much. It seems to change so fast that it is impossible to find a platform that sticks.

SC: Do you think youth leaders have to be young, in their twenties or thirties, to engage youth?  

RW: I am 29 years old, and a mother to two small children. I find this to be a very interesting stage of life for involvement in youth ministry. The youth don’t quite think of me as ‘old’ exactly, yet I often speak about parenting, which, I think, helps them to better understand their own parents.

I think anyone who is young at heart can be a youth leader. For practical reasons, the job is often best suited to someone who is physically active and does not mind pulling some all-nighters. But that said, I have seen youth leaders in their 50s who can light up a sleepover with their enthusiasm and energy. Ultimately, teenagers connect with leaders who want to know them for who they are and who will love them unconditionally, and in so doing remind them just how loved they are by God and the Church.

SC: Most young people want to have a ‘cool’ youth leader. But is it possible to be “too cool” – for example, can a “cool” youth leader connect with the less popular youth in the group? What is more important than coolness in a youth leader?

RW: I think there are two types of ‘cool’ at play here. There are the ‘cool’ trends of consumer capitalism and subcultures that come and go. And then there is…let’s call it ‘true coolness,’ for lack of a better phrase. Trend-coolness is not ultimately of that much interest to youth. They know better than anyone how these things change in an instant. But ‘true coolness’ lies in authenticity and I think this is what young people aspire to and admire most. This kind of coolness is what young people are looking for in a youth leader. They want someone authentic who knows who they are and is comfortable in their own skin. The geekiest youth leader who is unapologetic in his ‘un-coolness,’ able to laugh at himself and stand firm in his identity, will always be more successful than someone who is on top of the latest trends and consequently blown about by them. A youth leader who is authentic can help young people begin to see how they might form the disparate pieces of their identity into a coherent self.

SC: Not that high school is particularly a cake walk, but how do you prepare the older teen for the often anti-Christian university environment?

RW: St. Margaret’s is a very intellectually and culturally engaged church and has always had a large base of university students. Engaging the secular world is just what we do! When it comes to preparing youth for the world outside of youth group, the world they will encounter at university if not before, I think the most important thing to do is to trust in the Gospel (and make sure we are giving our youth ample opportunities to hear it!) and teach and encourage youth to ask questions. Questions not just of secular culture but of everything, including the Christian faith and the practices of the Church. Youth are far more critical of culture than we give them credit for and I have found they are usually relieved to be given a space in which to critique it and the beginnings of a vocabulary with which to deconstruct it. In this area and, I think, all aspects of youth ministry, it’s a good rule of thumb to ask more questions than you give answers. Answers can end conversations but questions provoke and empower.

SC: I’m assuming you mean that answers that are too glib or packaged end conversations, not that there are no answers to anything in our faith. God’s Holy Spirit and his Scriptures do reveal some things to us, and surely we can to some extent defend our faith?

RW: Absolutely! A young person who has been encouraged to question and think critically will not be surprised to arrive in a first-year philosophy class and find they are required to question and examine everything they think they know about the world. Their worldview will not shatter; instead they will happily take on this task just as they have been doing their whole lives. And they will likely have some thoughtful questions from a Christian point of view for their professors and non-Christian peers.

SC: When should Sunday school end for teens? Should youth groups be a substitute for Sunday school?  

RW: I think the Sunday school class just turns into a Youth Bible Study that is more discussion-based and focuses on the questions and concerns of the particular group.

SC: Where does confirmation class fit in? Is it part of the youth group or Sunday school or is it something completely different?

RW: We teach Confirmation Class on Wednesday nights in Lent in addition to our Friday and Sunday programming.

SC: Where do church camps and retreats fit into your youth group program? 

RW: We go on a winter weekend retreat. This year we are taking a group of 17 youth and four leaders to Camp Arnes, which is 1 1/2 hours north of Winnipeg.

St Margaret’s has a long history of supporting and working in partnership with Manitoba Pioneer Camp. Many of our youth attend MPC and we really encourage this and try to keep these connections strong throughout the year. The church has helped cover the camp costs for some needy campers.

SC: Do you try to meet each teen individually at the local coffee shop or some similar public place just so you can get to know each one better?

RW: Yes, I think this is very important. The three youth leaders divide the group up and meet with them individually for coffee or for a walk. Often the younger ones aren’t ready for that so we focus more on the older youth. We’ve also found that taking two or three youth out together can work really well, particularly if some of them are new or shy. This takes a lot of time but it’s necessary to build a large youth group. I think at some churches the leadership can overlook just how important this is and how much time it takes. I would say this is a key factor in youth leader burnout.

SC: How do you personally avoid burn-out?

RW: It is quite common for youth leaders to experience burn-out. They often are not paid enough and are overworked. At the moment I am working with two other youth leaders and this model has been excellent. We each stick to our strengths and support one another, so we manage to avoid the stuff that isn’t life-giving for us. I would highly recommend a youth team as opposed to a single leader!

SC: What is one of the most fun activities St Margaret’s has done?

RW: Games nights at the church – where we turn off the lights, blast music and run around playing games like Capture the Flag – are always a big hit. The youth also really enjoy when a parishioner hosts the group. For example, every year an art teacher invites us to her studio and leads us in a creative project. 

SC: Have they tried any service projects?

RW: We haven’t done much in this area, mainly because of the constraints of our time slot. It is hard to find a meaningful way to be involved from 7-9 p.m. We are wary of engaging in one-off mission projects that do not build lasting connections. 

SC: What would you recommend for congregations that have only three or four youth? 

RW: Well firstly, I would say don’t get too worked up about it! A church that is anxious about having small numbers of youth will never be attractive to teenagers. Instead, focus on your strengths: get to know these teens really well and connect them with other adult mentors in the church; turn your gaze outward rather than inward and focus on outreach. A group of three of four is much better suited to a long-term service project. So connect with other ministries and non-profits. And whenever possible join forces with other youth groups even from other denominations. This will not only make youth feel part of something larger but help them understand traditions different from their own.

Take a look at the community around you and discern what needs are not being met. Could you run an after-school homework club? Do you have a gym where you could start a free indoor soccer league, or someone who could run a youth drama club? Finally, don’t get stuck in the present, think about what your youth group could be like in 5 or 10 years – pay attention to children and young families and get them connected. 

SC: What do you want to get across to the youth, if they learn nothing else?

RW: I want youth to know that they are created and loved by God. I think if they can believe that, they will be a light in the darkness for themselves and for others.  TAP

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