When we invited regional youth workers to the Lutheran-Anglican Stronger Together youth ministry consultation, we didn’t ask them to come for training. Our purpose was better expressed through a call taken from the Book of Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common.”
The story of youth ministry in our churches has been shifting over the past few years; the “wonders and signs” have been visible at all levels of the church. Youth leader gatherings in 2008 and 2011, along with the first joint youth gathering in 2010, have been some of the most visible from a national vantage point. Each of these is an expression of the best of what’s happening at parish, diocesan and regional levels, where hard-working and talented individuals have been using small levels of resources to do incredible, life-changing ministry among young people.
This “new” story is simple but powerful: where passionate, prayerful youth workers and volunteers are not working in isolation but are supported by their whole churches, young people and communities alike are being fed, empowered and changed by their encounters with the living Christ.
The old story, however, is still being told: that we are a church of shifting demographics and dying traditions that expects youth ministry to save it. This reasoning has been the single most damaging foundation for youth ministry in Canada. It has drawn up plans from a place of fear and anxiety, where youth coordinators are employed on short-term contracts to fulfil an endless shopping list of impossible objectives. These positions have been terminated on a pretext of failure after a few short years when the parish statistics have not shifted and budgets have been tightened to protect the “core” of the institution.
Isolated youth ministers operating from a vision of short-term panic, stop-gap solutions and a sense of failure-if this is the church that reaches out to young people, how can we possibly expect them to respond?
We organized Stronger Together to articulate the new story based on the shared experiences of the attendees and to speak it to our dioceses, regions, parishes and national bodies. We are not proposing a single project, model or approach to be rolled out across each diocese and synod. Rather, we united to propose a series of three-year goals that would enable each region to support effective, sustainable youth ministry.
Those goals include visioning: a challenge that 50 per cent of the Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada will have discerned what youth ministry could look like in their context and will have identified a single measureable goal for making their parish youth ministries more effective.
Leadership formation is also crucial. Each diocese and synod needs a staff or structure (paid or volunteer, coordinator or committee) with a clear and realistic job description for empowering youth ministry regionally and in congregations. Parish volunteers should be affirmed and supported by annual training and retreat opportunities.
Youth ministry needs to be resourced, through both financial planning and intentional connecting of youth ministry facilitators across regions and the country. Communication should not be random. There should be definite plans for electronic and print media as well as personal contact and deliberate storytelling.
And there needs to be definite focus placed on nurturing individual young people. We aim for a year-long, residential young adult discipleship program to be planned and budgeted for in each part of the country, and to see 75 per cent of dioceses and synods having youth participants in national or regional events each year.
During the next three years, the Stronger Together community will build on the momentum begun at Camp Columbia. Our ministry is mostly individual in our different regions, but we aim to continue to meet and keep each other accountable for our role in this work. Similarly, we will also continue to be advocates for youth ministry across our churches so that we will bury the old story and its associated bad practices.
In its place we will share a life-giving ministry in which the church doesn’t need to ask where all the young people are. Instead, everyone in the church will be intentionally ministering to young people themselves.
Phil Colvin is youth coordinator for the diocese of New Westminster and youth director at the parish of St. Francis-in-the-Wood, West Vancouver.