If you're like most people across the country, you've probably asked what steps we, as the Church, can take to improve the ministry work we do for youth and young adults.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Identifying what is necessary for good, honest, Christ-centered ministry is more art than science. Yet we can at least offer three basic principles that can help us spot (and shape) real ministry for youth and young adults; three principles we can wrestle with and use to shape ministry in our communities.
First and foremost, we need to know what we're aiming for.
1. Identify the Goal
As we (and many others) have said before, summer camp is consistently the best ministry the Church offers to youth and young adults. And it's not because of the activities or the games. It's not because of swimming pools and basketball courts.
It's because summer camp is so consistently centered on Jesus Christ.
One of the most dangerous things we can do in ministry is buy into the false divide between sacred and secular. God is present everywhere and filling all things, and our challenge as Christians is to truly see and experience Him anywhere and everywhere.
Summer camp is consistently a great example of this. Every day begins with prayer, and ends with prayer. Every meal begins and ends with a blessing and thanksgiving. And even when participants aren't doing anything obviously "churchy" like praying or learning during educational sessions, they approach every activity with simplicity and Christ-centered love.
It’s not that we’re adding Jesus to summer camp to make it better; it’s that camp is what it is precisely because Jesus is always there, always with us, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.
Because, when we truly live as Christians, there are no "churchy" activities and "non-churchy" activities. There is simply life in Christ.
Church isn't a place we go; it's who we're called to be.
However, we need to be careful about how we go about implementing this.
2. Keep Christ at the Center, Not the Edges
In last week's piece, I warned about the activities that we sometimes present as ministry: cultural events, athletic competitions, etc. Of course, there's nothing wrong with Greek dance or basketball tournaments. Communities need activities that bring people together to laugh, develop friendships, and simply have fun.
And as we can see from summer camp, even apparently ordinary activities are filled with the light of Christ if we approach them properly.
Yet we sometimes take athletic or cultural activities and shoehorn them into a religious form; we make the mistake of insisting that youth and young adult activities have a "religious element." We insist that athletic programs include a Bible Study, or that cultural programs include a sermon.
This comes from a natural anxiety, a fear that young people are leaving the Church and that we need to give them a religious message whenever we can. Yet perhaps it’s better to let a basketball tournament be just that, a basketball tournament, dedicated entirely to Christ through a spirit of fellowship, sportsmanship, and loving support. Perhaps it’s better that the entire day be spent living the Gospel rather than just a few out of place moments be spent preaching it.
We add these religious elements to glorify God, yet the unintended consequence is that we turn Him into an afterthought, largely absent from our lives. When we insist on adding "religious parts" to a day or event, we reinforce that what's really important is the sports, or the dancing, or the food.
We cram in Christ and “churchy things” because we're "supposed to.”
Yet, perhaps we can make a more conscious effort to “preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.” That way, if our lives are already full of a Christian spirit, centered on our Lord and Savior, we won't feel the same anxiety about making sure things are "churchy" enough.
Because everything about us and our lives will, ultimately, be a grounded in the Church.
3. Be the Church, Don't Simply Go to Church
Traditional youth ministry is usually carefully roped off from wider Church life: youth ministry has its own time and place apart from the adults, Sunday School students have their own place to sit during services, etc. It echoes the way Church is itself roped off from our wider lives, reduced to a particular building and a particular hour on Sunday morning.
Yet the Church is not simply a building; it is us. And it is not limited to a once a week service; it is our participation in God's eternal Kingdom.
When we limit the Church to a fraction of our lives, we send a clear message: the Church is not really important. And when we limit youth and young adults to a fraction of the life of the Church, we send them a clear message: the Church is not relevant to you.
It may not be the message we intend, but it’s the message that has led to more and more youth and young adults falling away from the Church as they get older.
As we develop a confident, authentically Christian spirit, we'll see that there's time for games and festivals, just as there's time for vespers and Bible Study. Though each of these is different and unique, each can be united as part of our larger life in Christ, the constant leading of a liturgical life that continues even after the Liturgy has been celebrated.
In light of these three principles, take a moment to reflect on the ministries in your community. How can they be adjusted to keep Christ at the center? How you help encourage yourself (and others in your parish) to see yourself, not simply as a Sunday morning Christian, but as a member of the Church, a member of Christ's Body, anywhere and everywhere you go?
1. St. Demetrios in Merrick, NY.
3. Cleveland BeeTreat; April 2016.
Steve is the Director of Y2AM. Perhaps best known as the host of "Be the Bee," he's a graduate of Yale University, Fordham University School of Law, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. You can follow him on Twitter here.