by Christy Williams
A youth worker’s spring and summer are traditionally filled with planning meetings, permission form retrieval, special gatherings, conferences, camps, and mission trips. During this spring and summer, in the midst of a global pandemic when churches are not sponsoring in-person gatherings, it has been difficult to gauge how well we, as youth workers, or our churches are connecting to the young people in our congregations. Our jobs seem to have morphed into scrambling to pull young people away from binge watching, book reading, and social media scrolling and back onto virtual gatherings for fellowship, worship, and Bible study. Our efforts are often met with disinterest and resistance.
Naturally, we begin to question ourselves: Are we connecting at all? Is anything we are doing helpful? Meaningful? What matters to youth now that church and most of life’s interactions are virtual?
Here is some good news! In interviews with high school youth from around the country, each expressed appreciation for their church’s efforts to include them and encourage them during these times of multiple disappointments and losses. Even if they didn’t participate in every Zoom youth group, they were aware of what was being offered and glad to know they had the option of attending. More importantly, they were comforted by the online weekly worship they were able to view with their family or on their own. The more the worship services included multiple members of the church family, the more they stayed tuned in and felt connected to their whole congregation.
As I spoke with youth from multiple congregations, here are three areas of connection and meaning that were mentioned repeatedly:
Consistency During Inconsistent Times– “Keeping our Sunday and Wednesday evening meetings going at the same time as when we could meet in person really helps fill the gap to normal. I am sort of sick of people saying, ‘the new normal’ and am glad when there are things that can stay the same. Also, consistent meeting times help frame my week.” Meeting to check-in and have discussions not only comforts but gives different social contact to youth who may be feeling isolated. “If all else goes wrong, I will have these people” was a comment made by a high school junior. Weekly meetings help youth enrich their relationships with one another and create connection to their congregation. It is also the place they expect to hear about what else is going on in the church. They want to know who is sick, in need of prayer, had a baby, etc. They want to know about the larger congregation.
Celebrating Milestones- “My senior year of high school was hi-jacked. I felt disconnected to everything. But our church hosted a Graduation Parade where so many families with children and older people in the congregation showed up with decorated cars to wave and honk for those of us who missed graduation. It was the best thing. It made me feel loved. It reminded me that I was part of this great church family.” Another senior said that having a social distanced graduation celebration with a few other graduating seniors and their families was more meaningful than their school graduation. What we have learned during this pandemic is that when the church creates an intimate environment to celebrate milestones in creative ways, youth respond positively. They feel the nurture of the greater church surrounding them. They experience a sense of trust and belonging in their family of faith.
Inclusion in Worship– “Each Sunday as I watch and participate in worship online, I am excited to see all the different people who are readers, singers, people who pray or do announcements. Even though we aren’t together, I still feel an interconnectedness of generations that I just need. It’s like each Sunday the church is offering that to me in such an affirming way.” There was an overwhelming expression of joy about how the congregations of these youth found creative ways to include all ages in virtual worship. This engaged the youth in the service and comforted them while helping them feel like part of a larger community. “The sense of connecting to my church family through worship keeps me coming back to other events, like youth group and church school.”
There were also disappointments that the youth expressed, including not getting to talk with other youth to express remorse when a summer trip was cancelled; not having more local mission experiences offered when a large, out of town mission trip was no longer feasible; and not being allowed to gather to celebrate the end of a crazy school year. But generally, the youth in our churches are finding meaning and connection in the ways in which churches are continuing to worship, study, and gather together.
“My church is doing the best it can to keep things going, check-in with everyone, and continue to be a family. My family.”