The One Big Thing that I Learned @YMLX
Over the past few years, Unitarian Universalist leaders have been looking beyond our doors to organizations committed to improving the ways in which we do church—focusing on the family and the church as one team. The Fuller Youth Institute , in cooperation with ReThink (the people behind Think Orange ), held the first-ever Youth Ministry Leadership Exchange  (YMLX) this February in Atlanta. This gathering of volunteers and religious professionals (who have a deep love for their work with youth) came together dive deep into our own youth ministries, exploring ways in which we can better meet the needs of our young people, their families, our churches, and our communities.
There was a lot of information and sharing that went on in each session and small group discussion that I could probably write my own book about what I took away. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’d like to share with you the one big thing (assessed by asking honest questions) that I learned about my ministry from YMLX. WARNING: what I have to say isn’t going to sit well with some of our people. But I care too much about this faith not to speak my truth in love. So, here goes...there is no more important ministry in the church than the family ministry. The end.
Did you hear that? Not Adult education, not Children’s programming, not Youth Group, not the choir. Not more petitions, more marches, more book groups, longer sermons. Our congregations have plenty of programs and do a lot of stuff but what our people need is GOOD FAMILY MINISTRY. Now, a lot people will not agree with this. Social justice issues or faith development are very important in the current political and social climate in which we find ourselves. We’ve invested a lot of time and talent in our current programs and we don’t want to start again from scratch. I get that and I somewhat agree. But all of those categories and programs can be adapted into good family ministry (note the word GOOD).
Good family ministry is comprehensive. It focuses not only on the head but also on the heart and the hands. Do you remember the interactive chalice reading found in the Chalice Children curriculum? Good UU family ministry creates “the church of the open mind, the helping hands and the loving heart.” A little strategically-designed, something for everyone that points the entire congregation towards a shared ministry goal. Because if the entire family isn’t feeling connected to the congregation, the disconnected ones will eventually pull the others away.
So, let’s be honest with ourselves and our congregations—who are we doing things for? Ourselves? The longest-standing members or biggest pledgers? That’s not good. The word “congregation” is defined as “an assembly of persons brought together for common religious worship. That means EVERYONE (young and old) MOVING (adapting, innovating, engaging) FORWARD TOGETHER (the ones here right now and the ones we attract later). So to create good family ministry, I ask you to take an assessment of your congregation:
- Where does our treasure lie? You can tell the true value of a thing based on the amount of time and money allocated for it. Does your congregational calendar and annual budget make equal room for people from the cradle to the grave? Is anyone under the age of 18 relegated to the basement or a single, shared space? Do adults groan when asked to lead a class or advise a small group? Do your adults have full-time staff dedicated to their growth while the children’s and youth programs are given only one staff member who does it all with volunteers and a lower amount of funds in fewer paid hours? Your church may claim to care about the whole family but does your behavior, your calendar and your budget back that claim up? If your congregation isn’t drawing in young people, families and singles, it is dying a slow death. So invest in your community’s future by planning and staffing well today.
- Are we listening to the animals? Since the 2016 election, we’ve seen an uptick in attendance in many of our congregations because people are seeking solace, guidance and kindred spirits doing the work that needs to be done in these uncertain times. But why do we throw the same dull programs at people all the time? Dr. Virginia Ward, Director of Leadership and Mentored Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, used animals to describe the ways we typically do church:
- Elephants are the things we won’t talk about that take up too much air and too many resources for so little return. Do we say we value youth but don’t allocate any money to help the develop their faith beyond our walls? Do we spend thousands of dollars a year on a once-a-month newsletter that no one reads instead of creating a communications strategy that utilizes social media, text messaging, and memes to spark conversations about living our values and faith everyday? Don’t ignore the elephant. Start thinking how to best reach the many using better tools. BTW, if that elephant has been around for more than a year, it’s YOUR elephant now. So you better deal with it.
- Dinosaurs are things we won’t change because they are beloved or are “the way we do things” that have no return. Don’t feed the dinosaur. Don’t pump money into programs that do not work. Gather your team and brainstorm the changes you need to make to bring about progress. Ask “What can we do to open our doors to others? To people not like us?” Church isn’t only for the people in the pews. It’s for the entire community.
- Ostriches are the things we focus on so heavily that we can’t see the other issues in the room. What is happening in our members’ homes? What’s going on with our kids in school? The ostrich misses opportunities when its head is in the sand. Don’t get stuck like the ostrich. Identify your ostrich and start looking for ways to make relevant changes.
- How relevant are you really? Something, somewhere along the way has gotten our churches stuck and we’ve lost our ability to IMAGINE. Many of our worship services, small groups, and classes are designed and presented so seriously that they make no room for play and fun. People want to be on a team (PLAY/ACTION) not on another committee or in another class (TALK).
The best way I know how to tap into my imagination is to look to the children. Sophia Fahs and Angus MacLean, two of Unitarian Universalism’s greatest educational leaders, promoted “a child-centered, experience-centered, rather than a theological-centered approach to education”. Our children are learning and growing their faith by doing faith instead of simply reading and listening to stories and lessons about faith. My personal RE motto is “community over curriculum”. Doing faith together creates community. Talking about it creates boredom. So ask yourself:
- Why does your ministry only happen under your roof, led by a minister? Our people are stretched thin with commitments. They don’t need more programs, more stuff. Why can’t a shared meme, a podcast or popular song (that aligns with a specific topic/theme) spark a theological discussions on Facebook or Twitter and building an online community? Invite people into community in a way that best supports them, even if it’s mostly online and not in sermon form.
- Does your ministry do anything fun that teaches congregants how to live out their faith everyday? Ask yourself “Do I model for them actions they can take to build up their family relationships? Do I suggest ways for parents to talk about current events that they can use in the car during their commute?” What do your families need? Are you out of touch with the needs and feelings of the community.Invite them into conversations not to events.
- Spend five minutes in a circle of youth and watch how they forecast their dreams. What if we thought like that? I’m so proud of the youth leading the charge regarding sensible gun legislation and school safety. Imagine the awesomeness our UU youth could inspire if they could find a spiritual connection from the outside world to inside our walls. Invite them to dream big and inspire people from where they are.
How would youth in your congregation finish the sentence “My church taught me to believe…”? How would your families answer, “How does the church support your family?” If the answer isn’t a clear one, it’s time to make some serious changes because our youth (with parental guidance) are moving towards young adulthood, making life decisions, and navigating in a world that isn’t giving them a lot of hope. So we, as religious professionals, need to up our game. We need to imagine big, plan well and take that leap to become more relevant. Give our families hope by creating good family ministry within your church community. It will alter the way our adults and youth see themselves and how they fit into the church. Be like the Apostle Paul in becoming “all things to all men”. Our calling is to help a generation to know who they are as spiritual beings. SO DON’T STOP IMAGINING! Otherwise, we have no right to be surprised when our youth stop coming to church.