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.
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!)
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.