Commentary: How an intergenerational mixer changed our church

In youth ministry we’ve begun to notice that two things occur as our youth programs become increasingly self-sustaining and disconnected from the rest of the church: The adults in our congregation feel left out, uninformed and unappreciated, and the teenagers in our groups fail to become a part of the larger church family as God intends.

Having taken classes from youth ministry leader Chap Clark while pursuing my M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to attend a learning lab on “Sticky Faith,” led by Fuller Youth Institute’s Kara Powell and Brad Griffin at the National Youth Workers Convention in November 2011.

Pat Daniel (right) tells a story to high school sophomore Jenna Austell at FUMC Duncanville’s “speed-dating” event to promote conversation among youth and older members of the church.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF FUMC DUNCANVILLE

As soon as I returned home I began to see this phenomenon of separation in our own church, and began to talk about it with our parents and adult leadership team. Together we agreed that an intergenerational approach to our youth ministry would be a win-win for everyone.

One way we’ve begun to create more intergenerational connection is by regularly hosting what we call a “Ministry Mixer,” an event to bring together our youth ministry with the various adult ministries of our larger church family. Our very first Ministry Mixer was a joint mission project creating sleeping mats for the homeless population of downtown Dallas, using “plarn,” or yarn made by cutting and connecting the scraps of plastic grocery bags.

I had very high hopes for the first mixer event. I printed out pages with discussion questions to place at each table and dreamed of the lengthy conversations that would take place between youth and adults. I was a bit disappointed when the natural seating arrangements of the room became a microcosm of our church: The adults sitting together and chatting freely on one side, and the youth sitting together and listening to their music on the other. Though I encouraged them to mix and mingle, each time I looked away the room would naturally regain its homeostasis. Everybody had a great time and the event was chalked up as a success, but I knew that there was so much more potential for interaction.

So we reflected, re-evaluated and decided to try again with a more intentional approach. I recalled a fellow youth pastor telling me how he incorporated the model of speed-dating as a fun way to get adults and teenagers to carry on conversations face-to-face. We decided to try it by inviting one particular adult Sunday school class to join our youth group for a potluck lunch and an afternoon of speed-dating-style storytelling.

I asked each member of the adult class to bring a single item associated with a story or memory. Following our lunch together, I had all of the older adults sit in a circle around a large room. I had an inner circle of chairs directly facing each adult chair. This inner circle was filled by our teenagers. I explained that I would be sounding a chime every three minutes to signal the end of a round, at which point the adults would remain seated while the youth would rotate one chair to their right. By the time we were finished, each teenager had rotated around the entire circle, experiencing two dozen different show-and-tells, and each adult in the circle had told their story two dozen times. (I made sure to tell them to bring an item that they wouldn’t mind sharing about over and over and over!)

Bill Turnbull speaks with high school sophomore Blake Dial at FUMC Duncanville’s “speed-dating” mixer, which encouraged older church members to mingle and talk with youth at the church.

To conclude the afternoon, we held a jeopardy-style quiz and gave Starbucks cards to the teenager who could answer the most questions about all of the stories, the teenager who could name the most adults, and even to the adult who could name the most students.

Every once in a while in ministry there is a moment when you unexpectedly realize that the ground on which you are standing is holy. Looking around the room that afternoon, seeing the smiles on the faces of the participants, listening to the stories being told, the questions being asked and the memories being shared, I recognized that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us. From the model of a plane flown in the Vietnam War, to the wood plank of the razed house that someone’s great-grandfather had built, to pictures of grandchildren, high school letterman jackets and everything in between, the wide eyes of our young people said it all.

Our teenagers need adults in their lives. Our adults need young people in theirs. When the body of Christ is operating as God designed, the church is a gathering of family. It takes all shapes and sizes, all ages and generations.

I cannot tell you how many positive comments I have received from both youth and adults who participated in that Ministry Mixer. Everybody is already talking about the next one!

Whether this intergenerational event—or the other elements of the Sticky Faith initiative that we are continuing to incorporate—will increase the number of young adults who remain involved in churches after high school graduation, is yet to be seen. But I can tell you this: When each of those students looks back on their time with our youth group, and they recall the adults who cared enough about them to share their own stories, they will have a picture of the church as a family that values and needs each of its members.

It’s my prayer that those who remain active in the faith will be encouraged, and that the hearts of those who have drifted away will be pulled back by these memories, to a congregation they can again call family.

Mr. Fitzpatrick is youth pastor at First UMC in Duncanville, Texas and a graduate of Fuller School of Theology. This column originally appeared on the Fuller Youth Institute’s “Sticky Faith” blog (http://stickyfaith.org). Publishing of this article courtesy of The United Methodist Reporter.

Neighborhood Ministry

Dinette raised her hand up in the air during a Bible study and said emphatically, “I want Christ in my life! I know that your life will become different when you have Christ in your heart, and I want that! I really want that!” On the following Tuesday, Dinette and her boyfriend Greg were baptized together in a little room that we have been renting to hold a Bible study. In front of a group of people from the neighborhood that started joining the Bible study, the two prayed a prayer of commitment and received Christ into their lives.

Shinya Ministry

Photo by Shinya Goto

This ministry, that reaches into the neighborhood in San Jose came out of a visioning process that San Jose First United Methodist Church went through for many years. The church has been yearning for new ways to reach out into the community. Two months ago, I invited a member of La Trinidad United Methodist Church, Jerry Haug, who has successfully started a house church in his life, to be my ministry partner. Jerry and I met at a Starbucks and dreamed of ways to reach out to the unchurched people in San Jose area. We as Christians often wait for people to come to church, but Christ was clear about His desire for us to “go.” The Great Commission says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19 NIV). From the very beginning, we defined our ministry as “going out and meeting people where they are!”

In the two months of this ministry, we have visited no less than 180 homes. There have been various responses to our visits. Some have urgent prayer requests. Some ask us theological questions that they have been struggling with for a long time. Generally, people are very respectful and are glad that we are making the effort to visit their neighborhood. Every now and then we come across very difficult situations. For example, one family of six people that we visited just before Christmas didn’t have enough food to get through the holidays. We took them to the nearby grocery store and bought them some groceries to help them get through the tough period in their lives. We also gave them a copy of the Bible as we held hands and prayed together.

Out of this effort to reach people in the neighborhood, we have connected with and been ministering to about 25 people. We recently started a Bible study on Tuesday afternoons. Since then, more people are being added to the group every week. We are about to launch another study on Sunday evenings for those who are unable to attend on Tuesdays. Five more people have been trained to do the visitation in the neighborhood including Dinette and Greg. So today, we have a total of 7 people that are visiting homes in the neighborhood.

Although it has been an incredible experience to see a spark, this ministry is still in its infant stage and we are figuring things out as we go. I ask my colleagues and friends to keep us in your prayers as we all work together to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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pic_bio_shinyaRev. Shinya Goto
Pastor
First United Methodist Church, San Jose

Only 15 Words Long

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Photo Courtesy of Asbury UMC, Livermore.

It is often said that ‘perfection is the enemy of the good.’  In the life of the local church, it is important to consider that the Wesleyan phrase, “going on to perfection” often places an emphasis on where we are aiming and not on the circuitous route of getting there.  Often, the route is the most engaging and instructive part of our shared journey.

I’ve been asked to share thoughts because Asbury UMC landed on a list of churches that experienced a significant increase in ‘professions of faith’ during 2012.  I believe the forward movement of our congregation today (any ‘going on to perfection’!) was rooted by the basic steps we took during the winter of 2009.  I want to give credit to that foundational work.

Four years ago, we began a process to go back to basics. Rather than trying to refine or re-create our mission or vision statement, we decided to develop a ‘core values statement’. Finding common ground on the common things on which each of us stood, we were going to be better able to focus on the things we could naturally live into.

We started with a simple Saturday retreat, took the creative results and over nine months used several occasions to massage the ideas into something brief but overarching – our Core Values Statement.

We made an open invitation to a six hour Saturday retreat consisting of 26-30 participants. Half of these participants held leadership positions while others were active in various ministries – education, youth, missions, music – and were not on boards or committees.  Opening up this kind of event to those who really have an interest is important.  Not everyone who is in leadership is open to considering new directions and some will not attend.  Conversely, much of the energy to offer up new perspectives comes from those who aren’t “leaders”; be sure both have an opportunity to attend.

The retreat was held at another church and began with spirited worship – mostly music and prayer and scripture – and it was kept brief.  (Find a foundational scripture that you can build around.  We used Acts 2:43-47, Luke’s wonderful description of the Spirit’s empowering the first believers to build community through selflessness and a sharing in life.)

We began with blank sheets of paper and by the end of the six hour gathering we had five very unique suggestions for core values statements.

We found the best place to start was to invite everyone to start with what they individually valued.  Answers ranged from the personal – love, family, home – to the collective – justice, peace, hospitality, kindness – and after working separately each person, as part of a five-six member team, compared their responses.  Then each table chose eight to ten of their top shared values.   Those became a list of approximately 35 shared values we posted on the wall.

Narrowing our list became a challenge but also an engaging adventure in conversation and reflection.  Each person was given only 5 yellow post-its to put up on the values they thought most important.  The result was a collection of the top 15 core values.  Our next task was to have lunch and open our Bibles to determine the scriptural warrants for those values.  That rooted people in the biblical stories – often the words and teachings of Jesus.  It lent authority to our task.

We then arranged ourselves into five groups – each one tasked to take the 15 values and create a statement incorporating each value.   Though the hardest, this exercise was very productive.  All five statements succeeded in capturing the essence of the values – ranging from a long laundry style list to a brief overarching summary.   We had each group share their results and that is where we left our retreat work – with five very different, but content-consistent, statements.  Over the course of the next nine months we worked to gather several more times and put final shape to a statement we could present to leadership.  Our goal: something inclusive and embracing of the 15 values – but short.

Our Core Values Statement?  Only 15 words long:  Centered in Jesus Christ, We Grow in Faith, Celebrate Community, and Serve Others with Love.

This Statement accurately reflected every value we articulated in our process.  Even though it was broad in articulation, it captured the focus we had on relating to God in education, personal growth in faith, the place of worship and music, the importance of relationships, valuable programs and the desire to make a difference in the world through mission and service.

Not surprisingly the statement was very Trinitarian – Grow in Faith (God-directed), Celebrate Community (Jesus-directed) and Serve Others With Love (Spirit-directed). It was also very practical and Wesleyan – head, heart and hands – and grace as prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.  It was about relationships with God, with our community of faith, and beyond into the world.

Since the adoption of the Core Values Statement, we have woven it into our worship outline with our bulletin announcements put in these categories; it has shaped our newsletter design, guided our assessment of past and current programs, helped us in directing our energies in new ways and establish priorities for staffing and financing the work of the church.

It also has given us guidance to invite people into membership and an active faith within the church.  We are still working on balancing requirements for classes (get acquainted, membership, etc.) and the necessary steps leading to joining the church but the Core Values Statement has prompted us to look less to membership and more towards true discipleship.  If anyone is active in their attendance and participates in small groups or  have gotten involved in the life of the church and found ways to ‘serve others with love’, it is an easy step to membership, because they already have engaged with our Core Values.

The latest movement of the Spirit, prior to taking vows of membership, along with two others, was to have a newly committed follower of Jesus Christ give his testimony. Within the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship, all those who wished to claim their movement into discipleship were invited to come forward to the front of the church for membership vows.

My suggestions to you are simple – find out what your people value individually, let them share their values, find common ground, articulate several brief statements of core values and then sit with it awhile; distill it, own it and allow it to shape your conversation and direction for your church. I encourage patience of the Statement – and repetition!   Once you move in this direction you have to be diligent – which isn’t easy, but, praise be to God! It can be fruitful.

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chuck copyRev. Chuck Johnstone
Pastor
Asbury UMC, Livermore

Professions of Faith

I do not remember when I first said yes to God, but I know when I publicly professed my faith.  It was Confirmation Sunday.

Faith_Blocks_Web

All 12 of us 7th graders were clothed in simple matching white robes.  After months of asking questions of our pastor and exploring what it meant to be a Methodist Christian, we stood up before our parents, friends and the congregation.  Some of us who had never been baptized were baptized first.  Then together we boldly declared, “I believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.  I believe in the resurrection and the life.”   Together we became members of the local church and members of the Methodist Church.

While it was a happy and significant day for me, our professions of faith were just as important for my hometown congregation.  We Christians are inspired by each other’s faith.  Hearing and counting a profession of faith confirms for our churches that we are more than a club; we are more than a calendar full of programs and events.  We are an effective witness in the world of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

When we count our professions of faith, we include those who are making a first “Yes!” to God through baptism and join the church, as well as those who confirm their baptisms by joining a church for the first time.  While we celebrate all who take membership vows, a very first declaration and joining is a different moment. People come forward to claim the covenant God has already promised them of grace, forgiveness, new life, and eternal hope through Jesus Christ.  And they take the next step of agreeing to be part of a covenant community to continue to grow in that faith.

While serving as a pastor, I often lifted up baptism and joining the church.  I invited people to talk with me if interested and we also included a note in the bulletin. You never know who is waiting for the invitation.  One Sunday I was approached by an 82 year old woman who asked to be baptized and to join the church.  She had claimed Jesus in her heart for many years, but complex family dynamics had kept her from confirming her private faith. What a holy moment to hear her witness:  “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace?  Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church?”  She kneeled and gave her beautiful affirmations to God and to the congregation.

Over the next several weeks in this blog, we will hear from churches in our Conference who reported many professions of faith last year.  I look forward to listening for how God is at work in their communities, in their unique contexts, touching hearts and lives.  In this season, I hope we will explore the questions:

  • Who is waiting to be asked to claim Christ in their lives and join our churches?
  • How do we help people move deeper into relationship with God so they are ready to publicly witness to this growing relationship?
  • How specifically do we create welcoming invitations across generations and communities?

Our answers may be different, but we are one in Christ.  One in Spirit.  One on the journey together.

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KristieOlah_2008_RGB_CR_websmRev. Kristie L. Olah
S
uperintendent
El Camino Real District
California-Nevada Annual Conference, United Methodist Church