(From time to time we invite gifted and thoughtful rural church leaders to share their insights with us on The Covered Dish. This article was written by Rev. David Stark, pastor of Shiloh United Methodist Church in Gibsonville, NC.)
Chances are you’ve seen it before, in young adults who are disconnected from church, often struggling with significant issues. Maybe you’ve seen it young families—connected to the congregation for generations—who have left their home church to attend another church that offers more for their teens and children. Perhaps you’ve heard it on the lips of a sweet old church lady: “We’ve got to get some young people in here.”
I’m talking, of course, about the problems rural congregations face when they struggle with youth ministry.
Most would agree that a thriving rural church is one that attends well to the spiritual formation of youth. What we are less certain about is how to do that.
Through a Duke Endowment grant in 2008, several rural pastors and lay youth leaders in the North Carolina Conference were able to study the work of leading youth educators and researchers. Here is a sample of what we read:
In explaining why the Duke Youth Academy strives for a 4 to 1 youth/adult ratio, Dr. Fred Edie asserts: “the young become Christian and then more deeply Christian through their association with experienced, exemplary Christians” (Book, Bath, Table and Time 29).
Kenda Creasy Dean, Associate Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, analyzes the fruit of youth ministry in the last few generations and observes, “The upshot of the overwhelming dominance of youth-group models of ministry was a deepening chasm between youth ministry and the theology of the church as a whole. When youth graduated from the “youth group”—the only form of ministry many young people had ever experienced—they effectively graduated from church as well” (The God Bearing Life 30).
UNC sociologist Christian Smith studied the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. He sums up his research with this advice: “Our findings suggest that overall youth ministry would probably best be pursued in a larger context of family ministry, that parents should be viewed as indispensable partners in the religious formation of youth… For in the end they most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are” (Soul Searching 267).
What these scholars seem to be describing throughout their work is a youth ministry model where:
- Small groups of youth are connected to adults who know and care about them.
- Congregations are intentionally intergenerational in their work and focus on mission, Bible study, and worship.
- Youth have ample opportunity to pray, study, serve and lead alongside adults in the life of the congregation.
This description sounds, to me, an awful lot like what happens—or can happen—in rural church settings. This model for youth ministry gives me hope for teens, young adults, young families and for the future of small, rural congregations.
Since 2008 the congregation where I serve has sought to intentionally implement an intergenerational model of ministry for and with youth. What we’ve seen is a dramatic turnaround. More teenagers have been baptized on profession of faith in the last two years than in the previous 20 years combined. More young families are visiting, staying, and actively getting involved in the church. There is an increased passion and participation in mission and service work. More adults and youth are engaged in Bible Study and prayer together, and—together—we are growing deeper in Christian faith.
All of this is anecdotal evidence. What do you think about the possibilities of an intergenerational youth ministry model? How do you see youth ministry affecting the overall life of the congregation in your ministry setting? What do you see as the particular problems and opportunities of doing youth ministry in a rural church?
-Rev. David Stark