By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister
Psalm 133 states, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” My heart felt full and grateful after recently meeting for the last time with some of the youth pastors from both Eastern District and Franconia Conference congregations. This group of persons representing seasoned and new pastors and sponsors invested in youth ministry has met together on a regular basis for many years. To me, they embody the strengths and gifts of God to our broader church collaborating around a unified purpose of passing on a vibrant and living faith to the next generation. We have learned much in our journey together and deeply enjoyed one another’s company along the way.
We have discovered that we can do much more together than on our own. Particularly as the landscape of the church changes, we will need to find more ways to partner together rather than become isolated in ideological or theological siloes. The church has an opportunity to offer a compelling vision of God’s reconciliation to the next generation and beyond if we can find ways to come together in genuine humility and trust. Our youth need to see the church model a way to be authentic community together, when so much in our world is building walls of separation.
One of the highlights of our monthly gatherings is hosting one another in different churches. We value the opportunity to be stretched and encouraged as we share the challenges and joys of our respective ministry contexts. As our conference continues to expand our borders, we can capitalize on the gifts of our diversity. We have mutual gifts and perspectives to offer in our churches in Philly, Allentown, Souderton, throughout Pennsylvania and beyond — in Vermont, New York, California, and around the globe. These gifts and perspectives can help our youth grow in their understanding of the expansive love and work of God in all people and places. Our youth need the skills of building relationships of understanding and mutual respect that cross boundaries of race, theology, culture and more. Initiatives such as the Walking the Walk program of Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia or Taproot Gap Year birthed from Philadelphia Praise Center can offer transformative faith experiences for our youth and young adults.
As we meet together we are encouraged in the reality that we are not alone in this work. Our task is to initiate young persons into mature Christian faith through relationships with numerous adults who join them in living the way of authentic discipleship. As elders we can offer youth friendship, guidance and listening ears as they make the passage through adolescence into spiritual maturity. This is the work of the whole church and not just a youth pastor or a few youth sponsors in the congregation.
Youth ministry cannot be done in a vacuum. As we consider forming faith in our young people, we cannot think that the process of discipleship begins in ninth grade, or can be relegated to a youth pastor. Youth ministry is only part of the whole life-cycle of faith formation embedded within a multi-faceted approach between home and church and the broader community.
Research shows that those youth who go off to college and beyond are more likely to hold onto their faith and become involved in church as adults based on the commitment and priority that church and spiritual matters played for their parents. Youth ministry has to include parents by supporting parents in their own faith and by helping parents model and communicate faith to their own teenagers. In addition, one of the most common factors for youth who stick with faith and church into adulthood is that they had at least five significant relationships with adults as a youth. Might the future of youth ministry be less programmatic and become more embedded into the fabric of the overall mission and life of the church?
One of the things my wife and I have appreciated about our time at Plains Mennonite Church is the investment by the whole congregation in the life and faith of our children. When we were looking for a church home, we were not looking for a church with a dynamic youth program as much as we were looking for a community of believers modeling an active faith that incorporated the nurture of children and youth into the whole life of the congregation.
What is the invitation of the church at this time? As a conference we need to continue to ask the question of how we are passing on the faith and work of the church to the next generation. How are we doing as a church in modeling a self-giving faith centered in Jesus Christ? We will need to place our trust and hope in a revealing God who has been faithful for many generations. We trust that the same Spirit that is at work in our lives will continue to live and move in our children and the next generation of the gathered body of Christ.