It sure would be great if we could advertise our ministries and young people would just emerge out of the cornfield all ready to go and excited. It might work for an exciting event like a “5 quarter”, a dance, or a night of VBS, but it doesn’t work that way for the long haul of discipleship.
I had my first job as a youth director while in college. I served Pocahontas UMC in Illinois while attending Greenville College (now Greenville University) just 8 miles east. There were three teenagers who had a connection to the church and attended sometimes. Two of them often attended youth group in Greenville where there was a lager group and programing included worship with a praise band. So most Wednesday evenings I sat in our little classroom alone. I prayed. I took a look at the community and did some research.
There was a school, so there had to be students. Where were they? What were they involved in? What did they need? What did we have to offer that could meet a need and introduce them to Jesus? I found some teens hanging out at the park and chatted with them. I talked with parents and grandparents in our church and around the community. I talked with the other churches. I found out who our direct neighbors were and talked with their kids.
The United Methodist church owned two buildings at the time. They were directly accross the street from one another. One was newer, accessable, and more energy effiecient. The other was the origional, beautiful, beloved Methodist Church building, primarilly used at that time for special occasions and in mild weather. The basement of the origional building had become a storage space, but included working kitchen basics.
Through all the conversations and prayer, I came up with a plan, and with permission from the administrative board, we turned the old basement in to a youth hang out. We had a youth fund that paid for pizza, sodas, popsicles, and chips. I stocked the room with board games and appropriate movies. We opened “The Basement” that summer.
Had I not taken the time for all those conversations and meeting young people in the community, I might have still come up with this idea, but no one would have really known what it was or why we were there. We had about 15 students hanging out with us almost nightly that summer in part because I went to them first. Had I just put up a sign and opened the door, they would not have come in. I would have still been sitting there praying alone and wondering why it didn’t work.
Too often, this is what we are doing: our sign out front advertises our worship and other program times. We publish it in the newspaper (if we still have a local newspaper), on our website or facebook page (if we have one), and in our monthly newsletters and weekly bulletins. We may send out postcards or some other paper invitation to every home in town, and we might send out social media invitations to all our friends in hopes they will share it with their children or grandchildren. But we are not personally going to the young people we wish to reach. It takes time, and it can be uncomfortable or awkward. But how much more awkawrd is it for a young person to come to you when they don’t have a clue what they have been mass invited to, who you are, or even who God is?
Young people need to experience the love of God. Reading about it isn’t enough. Being mass invited to learn about God isn’t appealing. Feeling cared for, known, and loved is worth showing up for. So, do you care for, know, and love people of new generations in your community? If so, how can you and your congregation help them experience that where they are first?