Ministry with Youth in an Affluent Community

Birmingham, Michigan. If you have lived anywhere near this area, you know that the stereotype of our population is well established. Recently someone in the area created a meme that linked the leading characters of “The Breakfast Club” with the surrounding communities. The character Claire Standish was “Birmingham.” Like Claire, we are a pampered people. The street next to the church is dotted with million-dollar mansions in a constant state of remodeling.

That is not to say we don’t have needy people in our community. We do. We have people who are needy in the way most of America would define “needy.” There are people in the pews who are food insecure, and some who must choose whether to buy new school clothes or pay the electric bill. However, most of our congregation is not struggling financially. Ministering in an affluent community has taught me to listen carefully to what members say in order to decipher their needs.

As the associate pastor for youth, I am often deciphering and seeking the meaning below the words. Talk of a new boy at school can mean a student is more interested in the worth others assign to her rather than the worth God sees in her. I then make a mental note to write a Bible study about being God’s masterpiece. A sudden withdrawal from the conversation can mean we have started talking about something with which the student is actively wrestling. I become acutely aware of the words I use and how other students are categorizing the problem. It is hard for any teen to express their needs, but for affluent youth it can be doubly so. When all needs are easily met it can be hard to identify that one even has needs. The pastor’s job in this context is to be the red flag waver. Questions are our greatest asset. Often a well placed “Why did you say that?” or “How did you respond?” can plunge a youth group into deeply spiritual conversations.

The weeks where conversations do not inspire the next week’s lesson, I fall back on asking myself, “Who do these young people need to meet?” Affluence is an isolating situation. Sure, they travel all over the world, but they often hang out with other Claire Standish types. I believe the greatest gift I can give these youth is to put them in rooms with different people, even people who make them uncomfortable (uncomfortable, not unsafe, an important line to draw). Thankfully our church has a thriving inclusion ministry where people of all abilities and backgrounds gather regularly. We welcome people experiencing homelessness, and have a long-standing partnership with a mission in the Yucatan Peninsula. In and through the church may be the only chance these teenagers get to meet people who are vastly different from them.

Ministering to an affluent community, especially to the young people, offers many unique challenges. However, if you find yourself being called to an affluent church, do not despair about spending all your time with the Claire Standishes of the world. They have the potential to faithfully lean into the call of Luke 12:48b: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (NRSV). The church I serve is committed to be a blessing to others and rise to meet the needs of the community. They have blown me away with their generosity and willingness to serve and learn. Jesus came for the poor and the affluent, and that is an unstoppable reckoning of God’s love.

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Bethany Peerbolte

The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte has ministered to youth for nine years. She loves to connect biblical lessons to modern events. If you catch her binge-watching Netflix or scrolling through GIFs, it’s research! Her blog, Millennial Epistle, has been featured by Presbyterian News Services and her contributions to SermonSuite: The Immediate Word can be read weekly. Bethany loves church memes, send your favorite to her at [email protected]