A church in a Colorado ski community wanted a youth group. The problem was that they had no members under the age of 30. They didn’t even have any members under the age of 60.
Theirs was a resort community with plenty of young vacationing skiers and plenty of retirees. “Ski bums” moved there to hang out after or instead of college, and “going to church” was not remotely on their radar. The retirees were, on the other hand, committed disciples who decided they would pray. They would pray for young people to join them in their Episcopal church.
The pastor officiated at more funerals than weddings, and after a funeral one afternoon, he was sitting in a coffee shop still wearing his clergy collar. A couple of heavily tattooed young men came up to him and – seeing his collar – asked if he was “like a priest.”
“I am like a priest,” he said. And then the young men asked if he was part of a church that “let’s people get together when somebody dies.”
“Like a funeral?” he asked. “Yes,” they said, “A funeral.” And then they explained that a friend of theirs had overdosed and died, and his parents had flown his body back to his hometown before they could say goodbye. The priest said that – if they wanted – they could have a funeral in the church building where he worked. They accepted.
The priest phoned his leaders and explained that:
- There would be a guest funeral this coming Sunday afternoon.
- It would be great if they could prepare a meal for their young guests. Homecooked comfort food was suggested.
- Although it might not be easy, they were to refrain from staring at or judging their guests. “They don’t look like church people,” he said.
The priest relinquished control over the “service.” There were no bulletins, no prayers, no hymns. The Friends of the Deceased took turns telling stories. And after, the guests enjoyed a homecooked dinner in the reception hall served by the church ladies and gentlemen. Eating his first homecooked dinner in a while, one guest said, “This is like eating at my Grandmother’s house. I wish we could do this every Sunday.” And without missing a beat, one of the casserole bakers blurted out, “We can. We’ll be here next Sunday too, so come for dinner and bring some more friends.”
These young men and women will – most likely – never join that church in a formal way. But prayers were answered and the church found it’s “youth ministry.” As I mentioned in another post this week, we have got to get past our image of what youth ministry looks like.
Ministry – for any age – is not about “getting people to join.” It’s about loving our neighbors and addressing their needs. I have no doubt that congregations will thrive if we are living out the message of Jesus. Focusing on “increasing membership” instead of following Jesus is the sure fire way to kill a church. The by-product, however, of doing healthy ministry is church growth.
So maybe you don’t live in a resort community with skiers. But chances are you live in a community with kids who need you. Maybe they struggle with hunger or addiction or bullying or struggles speaking English or substandard housing or unemployment or homelessness or unplanned pregnancy or neglect or overwhelming social pressures or gangs or physical abuse or basic human loneliness. How would you know? Talk to your local police officers, school guidance counselors, emergency room workers. Do your research. And then pray that God will make ministry happen.
Keep in mind that our congregations are asked to model what Jesus looks like. Keep in mind that these kids may never sit in our pews on Sunday mornings.
Or maybe they will. Maybe our new sisters and brothers in Christ will be homeless LGBTQ youth or teenagers with pierced tongues or gang members. Are we ready to welcome all kinds of kids into our fold? If we are serious about youth ministry, I believe we are. Or by God’s grace, we will be.
Image of one of many Church Youth Room ideas from Pinterest. For the record, we don’t necessarily need Youth Rooms in our church buildings. Also, I can’t remember the origin of this story, but it might have come from Martha Grace Reese.