Once upon a time in a parish far away lived a charming and dedicated youth pastor-me! One Sunday morning an agitated church warden approached me at the end of the liturgy and asked my why it was that no young people had shown up at the annual parish cleanup day: “I even put special announcements in both the bulletin and on the posters inviting ‘the youth’ to come out and be part of this service day, but none were there.”
So I asked him: “What were their names?”
He looked a bit dumbfounded and replied: “What were their names? I don’t know. How would I know that?”
“Well,” said I, “why would they want to come if you don’t even know who they are? It takes more than words in a bulletin or on a poster to make people feel welcome. Maybe if spoken to them personally . . .”
The warden departed, sadly shaking his head.
About a week later, in the same parish, I was asked if I would speak at the annual men’s retreat. I agreed, realising as I did so that even my presence would lower the average age of the group significantly. I happened to be thinking about how I could encourage a couple of the Grade 12 guys. I told them that I had been asked to speak at this men’s retreat and asked if they’d like to go along with me.
Without hesitation, they said: “Sure!”
The difference? I knew these guys. I knew their names. I knew what their interests were, what music they listened to, what sports they preferred and some of the spiritual issues with which they wrestled. I also knew some of their gifts for ministry, so I invited them to minister with me at the retreat.
They knew me, too. They knew that I cared about them, respected them and liked spending time with them.
The difference? My invitation to these two guys was personal and came out of a relational context.
So the moral of the story is that relationship is at the heart of youth ministry, right? To which you may well say, as I would: “Well, duh! Everybody knows that. Yada, yada yada.” The point is actually a bit deeper than that. One of the key lessons that come from this kind of encounter is that relational contexts have contexts, and for those of us who are Christians a huge part of that context is the baptismal community (a.k.a. the church).
Working with young people and youth ministers, I hear a lot about how people like Jesus but not the church. Which is true, and which I understand all too well. But . . . there is a problem. If the church is, as the biblical metaphors name it, the body of Christ, I wonder how we can really want Jesus but not his body.
Now, I could be diverted into a discussion about the gap between what the biblical writers envisioned as the body of Christ and the institution we call the church but, important as that question is, I’ll leave it for another time. What the biblical writers (and I would say even Jesus himself) did not envision were “disembodied disciples”-people wanting to follow Jesus all on their own, apart from the community of believers. In fact, some of them were pretty pointed in saying that such a thing could not be.
What I too often find in my work is something that resembles the bloody aftermath of a battle, with body parts scattered around, cut off from any meaningful connection to the body of Christ. Other times it looks like some sort of bizarre science experiment gone bad, where we try to grow limbs and organs apart from a body.
When Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth-people who appear to have been anything but a model togetherness-he said that entering into relationship with Jesus meant being baptised by the Spirit into the body of Christ. To be “in Christ” is to be part of the baptismal community, and it is within this context that ministries-including youth ministries-arise.
When we gather to celebrate the baptismal mysteries, we make promises to do everything in our power to support the baptised in their life in Christ. I have recited these promises countless times, but quite honestly most of the time I’m just saying words. Within a very short time, I’ve totally forgotten who “these persons” were and do nothing to support them in their life in Christ. I get busy, and life goes on. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we hear that young people like Jesus but not the church is that they don’t sense this involvement in their lives. It seems that there is often a disconnect here: they don’t feel involved in the community; the community doesn’t get much involved in their lives. On the one hand, their spiritual formation is often limited to Sunday School, confirmation preparation and maybe, if they’re lucky, a youth worker. The experience of church and adult spirituality can seem distant, dull and disjointed from their lives. On the other hand, many adults see the lives of young people as mysterious, exclusive and uninteresting. In this kind of situation, it’s no surprise that youth ministry can become something either tagged on to, or else practically divorced from, the life of a parish. The context for relationship gets truncated.
In contrast, my two Grade 12 friends had a great time at the retreat and bonded with some older Christian guys with whom they would likely never have connected otherwise. Such connections are essential for young men and women growing into adult Christians. They’re also vital for the congregation to be able to recognise, receive and benefit from the gifts that young people bring.
Sometimes young people really do want to go where everybody knows their names. Maybe it’s a good idea to get to know some of those to whom we promise before God to support and uphold in their lives in Christ. Essentially isn’t that a promise to evangelise: proclaiming the good news, teaching and making disciples? Doing all in our power sometimes has to be more than welcome signs out front or printed invitations in bulletins. Sometimes we need to become the signs and invitations-living signs and living invitations into the baptismal community.