I spent some time recently chatting with my friend Christina who does outreach and youth ministry (as well as many other things) in a struggling urban Lutheran church. Some of the things she’s trying are worth sharing.
Christina arrived and was introduced to a large, but well-worn facility, a community that is a myriad of cultures with low incomes, and an aging congregation that was unsure of what to do, as was Christina. The first thing she told me was, “There’s no job description for this!” So, she started reading… a lot. The first book she recommended was Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. This book may help point out areas that are in need of attention.
It didn’t take but a moment for her to realize that her congregation did not resemble the community in which it resides. Perhaps they have been so focused on hanging on to what is done inside the church that they didn’t see what was going on outside of it. This is one way a congregation dies in the middle of a populated area.
We, as a church, have fallen into a habit of keeping the gospel to ourselves. It is not only intended for us to go to church and study the Bible, but to share the message with those who have not yet heard.]
Keeping in mind that Jesus is the center of everything and that prayer, devotion, and Bible study are key components, Christina started a few things.
1) She started by cleaning up the facility and inviting volunteers to help. Nobody is interested in a church that looks run down, as if nobody cares about it or has a lot of junk or broken furniture sitting around. It’s amazing what a little elbow grease and a coat of paint will do. A building is not a sacred cow. Create boundaries where necessary. Lock the doors of rooms people shouldn’t be going into and lock up valuables, but open the building up to the community for appropriate use. Spend a little money for basketball hoops and other sports equipment. Start allowing the church to be a place in the community where kids go after school, but make sure activities are structured and monitored. Nobody can do it all on their own. Volunteers are necessary.
2) She started developing relationships and, more importantly, partnerships in the community. Her first task was to talk to people and ask questions. She visited with administrators in the schools and asked what their most common problematic issues were. She partnered with Timber Bay – Mentor for Life and started weekly mentoring groups where the kids could meet in the church. They are also planning on beginning TheVirtues Campus – Church Based College Education at their church. Along with preschools, daycares, and before/after school care, another option would be to start a homework club where kids can come, have a snack, and do their homework in a positive environment.
3) She started showing up with groups from the church consistently in the community whether helping or playing. Every city has events. Don’t just go to them, participate in them. Make a float, have a booth, provide a service. Make sure people know what church you’re from and step out into the community. Participate!
Integrating good deeds and good news into the life of the church in order to be a valuable impact and/or influence in the community to the point where people would notice if they no longer participated.]
4) She stopped making culture the issue. Poverty is the issue. Poverty is a lack of resources and support. Find out what people really need and find out where those resources can be found in your neighborhood. People used to go to the local church for help. Help is not always money, it’s support, a listening ear, knowing what’s available and where.
Gain an understanding of the complexity of poverty and how simply giving people money and handouts does more harm than good.]
There were a few other things she highlighted.
- Be sure your infrastructure is in place before you bring kids in for sports or mentoring. The two biggest issues are behavior and safety. Love = discipline. Lock the rooms you aren’t using or things will be stolen. It’s part of the culture of poverty so remind yourself that it’s not because they’re bad people and it’s not because they don’t like you.
- Make sure you have enough volunteers.
- Train your volunteers!! They need to understand that LOVE = DISCIPLINE. It’s not about feeling sorry for their cute little faces when they’ve broken a rule. You’re welcome in this building if you follow the rules.
- When students check in for an event, stamp their hand for that event so you know where they belong. Hand stamps don’t tell stories. Kids do.
- Don’t expect consistent attendance. Welcome anybody who shows up and encourage them to return, but don’t define success by the numbers.
- Choose activities or events that build relationships. For example, going to an amusement park. Sure, it’s fun, but does running around in small groups and riding rides build the kind of relationships you’re hoping to build?
Christina’s greatest asset is how she laughed about not knowing what she’s doing. We were taught to “do” ministry in a certain way, but there is no playbook for what she’s doing. She’s doing it anyway. Her heart is full of Jesus and she’s trying. She’s reaching out. She’s opening God’s house to the community and letting them know that He loves them. Things that don’t work will end and new things will be tried. You may not be able to do ministry the way Christina does because every urban congregation and every community is different, but you can try too.
Below are some books Christina read and recommends for doing youth ministry in an urban community:
- Joiner, Reggie and Schefchunas, Tom. Lead Small: Five Big Ideas Every Small GroupLeader Needs to Know. Learn more about leading small groups with children and youth.
- Lawrence, Rick. Jesus Centered Youth Ministry. Teenagers are looking for Jesus and we’re giving them everything but. They want to know who Jesus is, what He said, and how faith matters in their lives.
- Mayo, Jeanne. Thriving Youth Groups. Making youth groups friendly in a way that makes kids want to come back.
- Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0. Shows what some issues with teenagers are today and may be a great resource for training volunteers.