Youth Ministry at a Traditional Anglican Church

 

By Fr. Mark Perkins 

Curate, All Saints Anglican

(Taken from a paper written for Trinity School of Ministry)

 

Part I. Introduction

Like all Christian formation, youth ministry must be headed somewhere. Without a specific end in mind, ministry becomes aimless — at best a series of sound but disconnected messages, at worst a cheap form of counterproductive entertainment. With a clear end in mind, one can shape a ministry through “backwards design” — working back from the final end to secondary goals necessary for achieving that end and then lastly to the immediate steps needed to achieve those secondary goals. So what is that end? The ultimate end of Christian ministry is doxology: the eschatological vision of the corporate worship of the saints. If that is the final end of the human person and community, then it must be the case that whatever brings about the true flourishing of persons and communities will tend to produce doxology. All true flourishing glorifies God and ultimately shapes us to worship him. 

Rightly understood, youth ministry shepherds adolescents in their journey towards the fellowship of saints engaged in divine worship by helping them become more fully who they are in Christ — putting on “the new self” (Eph. 4:20-24) and being transformed through “the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1-2) “into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:16-18). This transformation happens in the context of the Body of Christ into which we are baptized. Youth ministry, then, should form adolescents in service to and ministry within the Church — which also means doing everything that can help youth stay in the Church into adulthood. Each individual parish or congregation, then, must be a place of safety — not merely negatively through the absence of abuse but positively as an environment in which children and youth are free to take risks as they explore their gifts and vocations. The parish should be a place in which children and youth learn to find within themselves the capacities to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible — and then to apply these for the good of the Church and the worship of God.

The following paper considers these goals in relation to youth ministry at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. First, I explore the broader cultural challenges in America that stand in the way of achieving these goals followed by a brief description of the Church’s role in general in responding to these challenges. Next, I describe what All Saints currently is doing in youth formation — both the good things happening, as well as shortcomings or areas of absence. Finally, I lay out a vision for healthy youth ministry at All Saints — along with the steps needed to implement that vision.

 

Part II. Considerations of Contemporary Culture

In many ways, contemporary American culture seems tailor-made to malform youth — to prevent true human flourishing productive of doxology. From the perspective of youth formation, perhaps the most troubling aspect of contemporary youth culture is Chap Clark’s description of contemporary adolescents in Hurt 2.0 as chameleons in adult spaces: shape-shifting to accommodate adults, while their “real selves” — to the extent that such a thing can be said yet to exist amidst a cohort trying to define their identities — hides in “the world beneath.” The appearance of a strong and growing faith among the youth of our parishes may therefore turn out to be illusory. Christian ministry must seek to bring the many selves of today’s youth into a coherent whole grounded in membership in Christ’s Body, the Church.

Adolescents in America are in crisis. They are increasingly disconnected from their parents and even their peers — and decreasingly attached to the Church or to any life of faith. Dishonesty is endemic. Unhappiness abounds. How did this come to be? Clark argues that adolescents have been systematically abandoned by the institutions and people with the cultural mandate to care for and nurture them. The collapse of family systems and the decrease of parental engagement, competence, and confidence has left adolescents without a strong mooring at home. School systems increasingly become factories with standardized test scores as output. Youth sports, depicted as sites of physical and character development, are instead oriented towards vicarious adult fulfillment at the expense of youth. Even churches have been complicit in severing youth from the broader congregation. Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross describe the segmenting of larger churches into generational silos, making such churches active, though unintentional, participants in this abandonment. These institutions as a whole, moreover, have failed to be in mutual communication — families, schools, sports, and churches not only fail to nurture youth individually but also fail to operate coherently together.

Clark’s book was published in 2011 (the first edition, Hurt, was published in 2004), while Allen and Ross’s came a year later. Neither, therefore, address the most recent developments in American youth. In a highly disturbing essay in The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge suggests that 2012 — the first year in which more than 50% of the population owned a smartphone — marked a watershed for American youth. Twenge shows that, in the half-decade since, American adolescents have become drastically and increasingly lonely and disconnected. Although some negative influences highlighted by Clark have improved — Twenge notes significant reductions in teenage sex, drinking, and other adverse or risky behaviors — these are slivers of a silver lining to a very dark cloud. Paradoxically, as social media and smartphones create permanent and non-stop digital connection, they have simultaneously severed the in-person bonds so critical to human flourishing in community. Psychologist Richard Freed further argues that this smartphone-related mental-health crisis is the result of deliberate decisions by the technology industry to exploit the psychological vulnerability of children and transform them into addicts. This situation, it would seem, manages to preserve and intensify the catastrophic consequences of disconnection, all the while severing adolescents from the fringe benefits of peer solidarity. The “world beneath” described by Clark has become increasingly noncorporeal.

 

Part III. The Church

Naturally, the Church struggles in such a context to form her children as members of the Body of Christ. Kara Powell and Clark claim that almost half “of kids who graduate from a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith in college.” Unfortunately, many churches have contributed to identity fragmentation through generational segregation and through youth ministry that is high on energetic razzle-dazzle — and low on the slow and steady work of Christian theological formation. An emphasis on “relevance” and “freshness” leads churches to break down the ancient liturgical structures which embodied catechesis in favor of cheap Christian knock-offs of pop culture. That same emphasis — combined with the undeniable realities of budget cuts — results in hiring the young and inexperienced to lead youth ministry.

Even churches who avoid these pitfalls will struggle in the current environment. The reality is that child formation is a comprehensive process in which the formal structures of the Church can only play a limited role. If family, school, sports, and social life — or even a combination of just some of these — are working against Christian formation, youth ministry’s effectiveness will be handicapped. Clark’s Hurt 2.0 affirms that, broadly speaking, every American institution intended to nourish our youth has utterly failed to do so. Indeed, that most are actively counterproductive — not so much failing to form the youth as malforming them. Clark finishes his book with a rousing cry for systemic change. He calls for active engagement in community to reshape schools, sports programs, and community organizations. His message is powerful but naive. The destructive, selfish, and radically individualistic culture that produces the breakdown he decries is constitutionally incapable of fixing it — or of even recognizing the true nature of the problem. They might bemoan the symptoms but cannot see the disease.

The Church, therefore, operates within a culture that is increasingly hostile to her ends and thus applies increasingly counterformational pressure on her youth. If the Church cannot transform the given communal institutions — and at the moment it seems impossible to believe otherwise — than what other path is left? Since, as all sources indicate, the role of parents is foremost in the formation of the child, churches must do all they can to help parents understand the unique challenges of our historical and cultural moment. In a culture of systemic abandonment, parents simply cannot assume that schools, sports teams, and even youth groups are going to do the hard work of formation. 

Twenge’s reflection on the deadly influence of smartphones should lead more parents to delay adolescent smartphone use until late high school at the earliest, and it should lead parents to rethink their own behavior with smartphones and social media. The Church should be on the front lines of this fight! Indeed, churches ought to be spaces where such a countercultural position is encouraged, supported, and reinforced in as many ways as possible. This is just one important way in which the church should offer a distinctive vision of human flourishing in community. Without running for the hills, Christians need to establish alternative institutions for cultural formation centered around the Church. They must seek ways to break down the fragmenting impulses of contemporary society by establishing the Church as the locus of a thoroughly Christian “subcommunity.” That means, as Allen and Ross suggest, finding new ways to bridge the generational divide within churches. Mark DeVries suggests that the youth of the Church need more active and holistic engagement from mentor-minded adults. Youth ministry should be less about one-to-one minister-to-youth discipleship and more about creating and facilitating healthy relationships among youth and as many adults in the congregation as possible. This also accords with Powell and Clark’s suggestion that parents seek to find five adults to invest in and form the faith of each child. 

This countercultural approach runs the risk of creating such a total disengagement with culture that parishioners become incapable of functioning in the culture at large, and the Church itself becomes incapable of communicating the Gospel to the culture. While I am convinced that the ultimate purpose of the Church — both now and in the eschaton — is doxological, doxology should naturally flow forth into mission as the Church strives to see God’s will “done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus, while we cannot rely solely on Clark’s arguably naive suggestions in Hurt 2.0, his orientation towards serving the world absolutely must be a part of the Church’s vision. This missional orientation of the Church flows from a healthy and vibrant community rooted in the Body of Christ — the parish church.

The subcommunity or countercultural approach will and should be challenging. It may prove inherently antagonistic to the consumer-marketing model pursued by some megachurches. But it will have the salutary benefit of clarifying one’s vision for the Church. Is it a place for a spiritual “recharge,” a healthy addition to the rest of American life? Or is it the Body of Christ, the organism apart from which we cannot truly live? 

 

Part IV. The State of Youth Ministry at All Saints Anglican Church

Currently I serve on the vestry at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the almost seven years that I have been at our small parish of roughly 120-150 parishioners, we have never had more teenagers than could be counted on one hand, and the rector has been our only paid clergy position. Our specifically adolescent-oriented ministry, thus, has been limited. In lieu of Sunday School, we have an all-parish dinner on Wednesday nights which typically attracts anywhere from 40-70 people. Following the dinner, we break into groups by age for a specific study time. This has been the only time when teenagers are specifically separated from the rest of the congregation. Numbers and teachers depending, adolescents sometimes remain with the adult group. We also have an all-ages summer Bible reading challenge with goals differentiated by age. However, our adolescents serve the parish in other ways: as acolytes and lay readers (the latter being canonically restricted to those at least sixteen-years-old), assisting with Vacation Bible School or our summer Sacred Music and Arts Camp (both of which are more oriented towards children), and playing on our church league softball team (a minimum age of thirteen). Our rector typically delegates the training of new acolytes to the more experienced older ones, which empowers the latter in service to the Church and builds mentorship relationships among older and younger boys. In this small-parish setting, youth are often engaged alongside their parents in service to the ministry — assisting with coffee hour and on the altar and flower guilds, for instance. Some of our young musicians have assisted with the music of the Church. Traditionally, then, All Saints has done well in creating the grounds for intergenerational bonds with youth and in integrating adolescents into the congregation at large. Youth are typically known and loved by the congregation, and the parish has been a safe place for them — not only in the sense of being safe from abuse but also in their being free to be and to explore who they are with the support and affirmation of the congregation at large. These matter but are tertiary to the eschatological purpose of the Church: worship. Worship is ultimately comprehensive and holistic, embracing our entire lives — “our selves, our souls and bodies” — but the Church most fully manifests her eschatological purpose as we worship before the altar in Holy Communion. No church should cut adolescents off from this central act of worship, and All Saints does indeed integrate adolescents into liturgical worship as full members of Christ’s Body.

Having said that, and without detracting from any of the above, it is also clear that our youth ministry lacks certain characteristics typically attributed to strong youth programs. We have not necessarily conceived of youth culture as distinct from the broader American (or specifically parochial) culture and thus have not thought of youth ministry in “cross-cultural” terms. The parish has not specifically attended to its potential role as an intermediary between teenagers and adults — as an educator of both about each other. In part because of our limited numbers, our teenagers have not typically found their primary peer group (or “cluster,” in Chap Clark’s terminology) in the parish. While teens have frequently and organically developed strong relationships with our rector and sometimes with other non-parental adults, we have not consciously and intentionally developed such adult-to-teen mentorship, nor have we consistently charged and equipped the adults of the congregation to engage in such relations. Further, we have not made use of retreats to build community and grant youth time and space to reflect on their relations to God, the Church, and each other. Additionally, it should be noted that our model is clearly that of chaplaincy rather than outreach.

Lately, our numbers of children and youth have been growing fairly rapidly. We have a half-dozen teenagers in the parish (three of whom, however, are from the same large family!), as well as more than thirty children. If all current families remain, in five years we will have a dozen or more teenagers — and given the number of families we have added in the past two years alone, it seems likely that those numbers will increase rather than decrease. As a result, our parish is already beginning to resolve some of the deficiencies above — both organically and by intention. Organically, there is a clear sense in which the older of these pre-teens are cohering into a peer group. Parents have begun coming early and staying late on Wednesdays. Before dinner, the children and youth are often playing Pokemon (the card game), trading and discussing baseball cards, or playing “war games” outside. After classes, they’ve taken to playing baseball in the field behind the parking lot — a common occurrence on Sunday afternoons too (and, for that matter, in the fields as Friday evening church-league softball games are happening). In addition, a young teenage boy has taken it upon himself to edit a weekly publication of parish poetry including submissions from all ages — another reflection of the parish as a safe place for expression.

Other things have been happening more intentionally. We now have a burgeoning youth choir that practices separately and periodically sings alongside our regular choir or visits local nursing homes to perform for and talk with the residents. Our recently formed lay ministry guild is also taking children and youth along on visits to parishioners (specifically, the ill or elderly who can no longer regularly make it to church). The girls make blankets and scarves for these parishioners, for the new mothers in the congregation, and for the Crisis Pregnancy Center. This spring and summer, the youth have been conscripted for work days at the parish and in the community (one such day involved a canoe and trash-clean-up trip down our local river). More changes are coming. Our parish has long had multiple clergy, but all have been dual vocation or retirees aside from the rector. Effective this August, we have hired a full-time curate to assist our rector. Among his duties will be primary leadership of our youth program. I will play some kind of assisting role in that ministry and the ministry of the Church in whatever capacity he and our rector see fit. 

 

Part V. Vision and Implementation for the Future at All Saints

The purpose of youth ministry at All Saints is to see our youth truly flourish — which means to fashion them into worshippers of God. This happens by being transformed in Christ. We therefore lay a foundation for retention in the Church — and for service to and ministry within the Church. This happens by ensuring that the Church is a safe place for young people to experiment and to take risks as they seek out who God is calling them to be. We wish also to ensure that our youth learn how to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible as they engage their God-given rational capacity to understand the world and their place within it. Much of what we do both organically and by deliberate intention already points towards these goals. Nevertheless, a ministry truly fulfilling these ends could do more. All Saints, therefore, seeks to implement the following in addition to (or in clarification of) what we are already doing.

 

A. Agape (“Sunday School”).

We will continue to eat and fellowship together as a whole Church across generations, after which we will continue to divide classes by age group. While the pre-adolescent groups (K-2nd and 3rd-5th) will follow a set curriculum on a three-year cycle (Old Testament, New Testament, Church history), the middle- and high-schoolers will frequently have a more flexible structure, allowing them and their adult leaders to pursue the questions they have and to build friendships with each other more organically. At some point prior to graduation, however, youth will work through a basic overview of biblical interpretation and ecclesiology. The teaching of these subjects will model attentiveness, intelligence, reasonability, and responsibility. Agape classes will also serve as a primary site for intermediary education, telling our pre- and early adolescents and their parents about what to expect in the coming years.

Implementation: Revisions to Agape classes will begin this upcoming fall. In the spring, four consecutive class sessions for both adults and adolescents will be dedicated to intermediary education on adolescence.

 

B. Service to or on Behalf of the Church

Adolescents will be challenged to fulfill a “scouts”-type program involving the recording of hours of service to or on behalf of the Church. This will include many of the things our youth already do: service at the altar in various capacities; choir, blanket- and quilt-making; visiting the elderly and ill. Experienced youth will qualify to train and mentor younger youth in similar capacities. Here also, though, we will engage in service for the sake of the Church beyond the walls of the parish (as in our service project cleaning the Rivanna River). More importantly, we will emphasize prayer as a central act of service to the Church and the world — the first (though not the only) way in which a Christian seeks the good of the parish, the Church, and the world. Students will be encouraged to record and discuss their practice of the Daily Office as well as contemplative prayer. 

Finally, youth will be invited to create a capstone project in consultation with clergy (and other adult mentors) in which they explore their potential vocations and gifts in service to the Church and the world. The projects would ideally emerge from the gifts and passions of each adolescent — explored in conversation with clergy and other mentors but self-generating and not imposed. Students would find a suitable advisor who, in consultation with clergy, would guide the project.  Examples of projects might include creating a church garden maintained by parishioners, fashioning curriculum for younger kids, managing routine visits to sick or elderly, teaching a class for a semester, music performance, or creating a project for community outreach. After completion, adolescents would present their project to the whole parish — at either Agape nights or during Sunday coffee hour.

Implementation: This fall we will simply build upon and moderately expand the existing initiatives (acolytes, choir, visitations, service days). In the spring, we will initiate a smaller-scale “scouts” pilot program with fuller implementation beginning the next fall. The capstone project will wait a bit longer (probably beginning when our current set of rising eighth graders are entering tenth-grade in the fall of 2020).

 

C. Adult Mentorship

We wish to exploit the existing tradition of godparents more fully. Prior to and after baptisms and confirmations, Fr. Glenn will meet with godparents to discuss their role as long-term mentors for children. Godparents who currently have godchildren in the parish will be encouraged to engage in relation-building activities at fairly regular and consistent intervals. All godparents will be strongly encouraged to pray daily for their godchildren, to reach out on birthdays and at Christmas, and to write at least one additional letter annually (separate from the above).

Furthermore, our new curate will initiate a small group of adult volunteers dedicated to mentorship of parish youth. The group will meet on a biweekly basis to pray, grow together, and maintain relational accountability. After a three-month trial period, volunteers will commit to two years in the group. Volunteers will spend at least half of the year attending the youth Agape classes, attend the yearly retreat, and engage in two hours of mentorship each week (which may include spending unstructured time with teens — attending their sporting events, treating them to a baseball game, inviting them over or taking them out for dinner, etc.). Mentors will also be charged to maintain contact with youth after graduation via phone, email, or in-person (see “Graduates” below).

Implementation: Our rector is currently formulating the specific expectations for godparents for immediate implementation — with three pregnant parishioners, the time is ripe. Our curate will begin contacting potential adult mentors now, beginning with those who have taught Agape classes for our youth in the past. By October, a group of “trial” volunteers will begin meeting for training and prayer. Active mentorship will begin in January. 

 

D. Retreats

We experience God most concretely in the sacraments (whether or not our feelings match up with that reality). Nevertheless, retreats which take us out of our everyday context can help us know God more fully and grown in our awareness of His presence. Furthermore, these provide invaluable time and space for youth to grow in relation to each other and to adult mentors. Youth therefore will be encouraged — and, when needed, given partial scholarships — to attend the Diocesan summer camp, where campers enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, build relationships with Anglican youth in other areas, and have fun — in addition to times of sharing and preaching, as well as daily Morning and Evening Prayer and Midday Eucharist. Whenever youth from the parish attend the camp, a clergy member — perhaps along with other adults — will attend as well. We will also inaugurate a parish retreat in the late summer or early fall for youth, parents, and other adult mentors. It will be located in a (TBD) setting where God’s beautiful creation can be better appreciated and which requires a non-trivial time of driving. The attendees will be divided into small groups of youth and adults (parents will not be in the same small group as their children), who will then travel by car together to enable conversation in a small, intimate setting, camp and room together, and come together for various “break-out” sessions. The specific focus of each retreat will vary, but all will (1) engage youth in reflection upon God’s presence in their daily lives and in the sacraments, (2) live out a corporate “rule of life” as a model for daily life, (3) draw attention to the goodness of creation and their responsibility as stewards of it, and (4) build relations among peers and between youth and adults that can be sustained and developed throughout the year.

Implementation: Both camp and retreat will be implemented in the summer of 2019.

 

E. Technology, Sex, and Sexuality

Smartphone usage among All Saints parishioners — youth and adults — is already relatively minimal. Phone use (without specific approval) at all youth events will be strictly prohibited for adults and adolescents. Agape classes will occasionally be devoted to combined youth and adult sessions dedicated to education about the hazards of social media and smartphones — as caution, not condemnation. We will also create optional, gender- and age-segregated groups dedicated to honoring the holiness of the human body as a created good. These will function in some ways similarly to “accountability” groups, but with a broader perspective. Chastity will be presented as (highly difficult) gift and a vocation to which all are called at different times in life — and some are called to for life (thus, the focus will not be on “abstinence until marriage”). Participants would agree to a simple rule of life: seeking to abstain from harmful influences (including but not limited to pornography), attending confession regularly, practicing a short set of prayers supplementary to the Daily Office regarding personal purity, and committing to prayer for others in the group.

Implementation: The Agape class will commence in the spring. Adult groups dedicated to carnal holiness will begin in the spring of 2020, with the youth groups to follow in the fall of 2020.

 

F. Graduates

High school graduates will be celebrated in a group dinner with the rector, our full-time curate, other clergy, selected adult mentors, and younger high schoolers. Toasts will celebrate the graduates, and the graduates will deliver prepared remarks reflecting on their years in the parish and giving advice to younger students. During the summer following graduation, each graduate will meet with the rector and curate to discuss their future plans and how they will continue to serve the Church after high school. Adult mentors will be asked to follow up with graduates throughout the following four years.

Implementation: Graduate celebrations will begin in the spring of 2019.