Great Plains United Methodists who work in any aspect of youth ministry were invited to a brand new training event called Spring Training which took place this past weekend. Each church was encouraged to send their Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, pastors, confirmation mentors and others to one of two locations to learn together how to have a great youth ministry.
Darren Falk of Silver Lake UMC teaches junior high and high school Sunday school. He came because, “I’m an amateur and I always need new ideas.” He attended the event in Salina that ran from 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 17, and ended at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. With him was Stephanie Seth who serves as youth director and oversees Christian education at Silver Lake UMC, a Topeka-area congregation that averages around 140 worshippers each Sunday. Stephanie has participated in the National Youth Workers Convention a couple of times and is registered for the next one. These four-day events in distant cities are not affordable for an entire team. “With the super early bird rate, registration is $300,” said Stephanie, which doesn’t include airfare, lodging or meals.
While such events attract youth workers from around the country, Theresa Heinrich and Alice Killian of Wilson UMC agreed their small church which averages 30 worshippers each Sunday couldn’t afford to send one person, much less several. “We try to get as much as we can that’s close to home,” said Theresa. She and Alice, along with Kristina Heinrich, a young adult who served as a Great Plains VBS intern last summer, made the 50-mile drive back to Wilson Friday night to avoid the cost of a hotel. “We work with Sunday school and youth group. Our motivation for coming was to get fresh ideas so the kids don’t get bored,” said Theresa.
The “coach” for Spring Training was Mark Oestreicher, a partner in The Youth Cartel which provides services and resources for individual youth workers and organizations. He brought good news for the youth workers of Wilson UMC and the other 19 congregations who were represented. “Small churches have a shorter pathway to great youth ministry,” said Mark. “Larger churches are often seduced by their resources into believing that’s what brings success. It doesn’t.” Fortunately the answer isn’t complex, but neither is it easy. “The heart of great youth ministry is a caring, growing adult with a smallish group of teenagers, plus the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus Christ,” said Mark. That’s the math of great youth ministry. It’s that simple and that difficult.
The dominant need of today’s teenager is to find meaningful belonging. “In most of our churches we’re running youth programs full of activities,” said Mark. While we wouldn’t say we’re trying to entertain kids, in many ways that’s what it seems like. “We need to move to offering a place of meaningful, unconditional belonging,” he said. In order to help teenagers be in a space where they can verbalize their questions, verbalize their faith and be known, churches need to “embrace the value of small.”
Each of the four 45-minute sessions with Mark were punctuated by moments of directed discussions between the youth workers of each congregation who were directed to apply the teachings to their own context. One session on the six values great youth ministries embrace called for each group to consider the values they feel called to embody as they seek to host opportunities for youth and God to connect.
Mandi Feil serves as the youth director of Trinity UMC in Salina where they regularly average 20 to 30 youth gatherings throughout the week. She recruited Misty Long and Kathy Olson to join her at Spring Training. They were energized by Mark’s teaching on integrating youth in the life of the church rather than isolating them. “Our congregation loves when the youth are active and a part of it, and I think if the youth contributed they would also feel better,” said Misty. Like the other attendees, they like having training that is near home. “Going out of state is hard for me because my mom lives on the farm by herself,” said Mandi. “I’m her emergency back-up.” Misty likes having multiple training opportunities even if the groups are small because multiple dates increase the probability the people who need the information will be able to attend. Mandi said, “I almost think you can get more out of a small group.”
Both days ended with seeking God through prayer, praise and Bible study. With a guitar and a partner playing a cajón (drum box), Andy Williamson led the group in worship. Andy was director of worship and youth ministries for nearly three years at the United Methodist Church @ The Well and led worship at the Uniting Conference in 2013. Dr. Amanda Drury needed only her Bible to speak to the group, although she likely tapped into her experience from 15 years in youth ministry. She served as a youth pastor in a local church before returning to school for a Ph.D. and now teaches youth ministry courses at Indiana Wesleyan University.
For one of her two teachings Amanda chose the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman from 2 Kings 4:8-35. After her son dies quickly from some disease, the woman ran to Elisha, her friend, at Mount Carmel. When seeing her from far away, Elisha had his servant rush to meet her and ask, "Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?" In spite of her distress, she answered, “It is well.” Once she caught up with Elisha, though, she fell to her knees and grabbed his feet, stating, "As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you." Amanda asked how many of us fall at the feet of Jesus when we are struggling, share our grief and fears, and yet still declare it is well. One extreme reaction would be to lose all hope. The other is to get lost in denial. The middle ground is where Jesus stands. “You know that even if you spend the rest of your life clinging to His feet, there’s no better place you can be,” said Amanda.
At 1:30 p.m. on Saturday as the teams in Salina continued to wrestle with what they had learned, before they had their final sendoff of worship and Bible study, Mark Oestreicher and the Great Plains Local Church Youth Coordinator Shane Hinderliter took to the highway, headed for First UMC in Kearney, Nebraska, where more teams of youth workers arrived that evening for their own Spring Training. Andy Williamson and Amanda Drury drove up to arrive in time to lead worship and Bible study again. In the end 65 Great Plains United Methodists from 20 congregations were treated like MVPs and went back to their churches with a bundle of “major league” resources for use in their ministry.