Mission in Unconventional Times: Empowering Young People to be the Church

Mission in Unconventional Times: Empowering Young People to be the Church

In each month's Discipleship Matters newsletter, SNEUCC's Faith Formation team works to showcase the good works and best practices present throughout the Southern New England Conference of the UCC and beyond. If you're interested in having the work of your church/faith body or para-church organization showcased next month, please reach out to Faith Formation Program Support Associate Sean Amato for more details.



This month, our Spotlight on Service is on the Youth Ministry of First Church of Christ Congregational in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Coordinated by Andrew Wicks, Director of Youth Ministries and Special Missions, Glastonbury's Youth Ministry exemplifies the local church's ability to continue to make a positive impact elsewhere in the world despite new and evolving barriers to good work. The church's youth services include confirmation programming, fellowship events for youth of varied ages, and - of course - mission and retreat opportunities. I had a chance to interview Andrew Wicks about the youth opportunities at his church and, during our discussion, he detailed how his church persevered in their missional activity amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sean: Could you tell us a little bit about your work with Youth Ministry at First Church?

Andrew: Sure. The institution we serve has been a center of the community's life for the last three hundred and twenty-five years, but we want to find ways to make our church matter in ways that are contemporary and modern - and the team I'm part of is mindful oft he fact that younger people need to be a part of the ongoing life and mission of the church. We're constantly trying new things to involve young people in the church, and to keep it strong. As you know, youth ministry is not just "youth group": it's got to encompass the skills and interests of your youth. At the same time, youth ministry is about showing young people that there's not a wall between church and life. We try to show our youth that there's a place for them in the church - and that sometimes that place is doing mission 'outside' the physical walls of the church.

Sean: What kind of roles do your youth play in their own faith formation?

Andrew: Our young people plan our mission trips, including a recent one to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. Our young people help plan Vacation Bible School, they sit on the committee for planning our capital campaign - and that's important, since that capital campaign is meant to contribute to a church that will accommodate a young person's interests and help endorse their future in the church. Alongside other members of the community, our young people take part in our oversight board. That's an investment in the future of our church's community. We do our best to "live our lives as our prayer": we want our kids to glean deep spiritual engagement and fulfillment via work and involvement with our greater community. The lives of young people matter, and the ability to sit on committees and act as leaders draws attention to their experiences.

Sean: What has the 'COVID-19 Era' been like for your youth?

Andrew: We didn't see a significant decline in involvement or engagement during the pandemic. We did our best to listen to our families and youth, managed their concerns, and kept people involved to the best of our abilities. In 2021, we figured out how to meet in-person all year long through a variety of different means. It was a challenging process, but the kids appreciated it. They were deeply involved in making it happen. COVID-19 spikes in the winter months led to some trepidation and worry about the cancellation of our upcoming mission trip, though - but the kids were adamant that they wanted to participate in it that year. They seemed to feel empowered to represent their church, and the people who take part in the life of the church. We're very lucky to have such an active youth culture here.

Sean: How did that mission trip to Back Bay turn out, and what is your church's approach to mission as a result?

Andrew: Our mission trips are conventional, but nothing's really conventional during a pandemic. We faced very real, very timely concerns getting it done: some of our students ended up coming down with COVID-19, and things became complex when flights were cancelled due to an increase in COVID-19. These are pretty consistent troubles for mission work in this era. Modern mission in changing very rapidly. There are lots of new precautions being put in place even as COVID-19 goes up and goes down in relevance, and it translates to our having to do things differently. Churches are figuring it out, though. With a little creativity and gumption, youth engagement in service and community activism is still happening in our pandemic era.

Sean: Do you have anything you'd like to say to other folks conducting faith formation work in Southern New England?

Andrew: You are worthy of long-term investment! You provide stability for the church, and for its leadership; you equip youth leaders - future leaders - to do ministry, and to do it very well. At the same time, youth ministry leaders should think beyond what curriculum they're using, and frame their work through their youth: how can a youth ministry leader engage their young people in the entire life of the church - from worship participation and worship leadership, to missions and church goal-setting and fundraising? Ministry doesn't, can't, stop at the walls of the church. Ministry has to happen in the community, in places where youth will see that ministry in real time. We need to show our youth that our ministry is connected to the rest of the world. Teenagers have a natural inclination to want to fix the problems of the world and, if the church wants to be a vibrant and active place, we need to speak to the issues of the world - around our kids, who are sharper than we know - how to be Spirit-led, and how to live in and make changes in this world.

Sean: Do you have any advice for folks in the faith world hoping to grow their youth ministry, or just keep things moving at their church?

Andrew: Invite people to be together, and keep extending that invitation. Make the time you have together authentic, and rich - teens crave that! But it's the same for young families. They want to take their kids with them to do service in the community. Older adults, too, are always looking for meaning and purpose, whether it's a day of service together or something more extensive. The fundamentals of building a beloved community comes from spending time together, and building relationships. Strong communities help build strong churches. We have lots of people contributing to all of the ministries present at Glastonbury, and it's because we try to make it a place where people get something out of being there. Now, we've got to expand upon it.

The Faith Formation team would like to extend hearty thanks and congratulations to Andrew Wicks and the youth of Glastonbury's First Church of Christ Congregational for their good works and ready engagement with their faith. How is your church putting faith into action? Share your stories with Program Support Associate Sean Amato, and you may just be spotlit in the next issue of Discipleship Matters!

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