I first walked into the church I now work for when I was in seventh grade. I attended Sunday School with my friends that I had sleepovers with on Saturday nights, and slowly but surely I came to be what we affectionately call an “MDUMC kid.” I was at every event that I could attend in between my theatre rehearsals or study sessions, and I grew to know the youth staff as my chosen family. Our youth staff is uncommonly large – throughout the years I’ve been here we’ve had anywhere from seven to ten people on full-time or part-time staff. These people are the reason that I am a believer – they’re the ones that helped raise me, they’re the ones I call when I am at the end of my rope, they’re the ones who know me the best.
Working with the people that you call your family is not always sunshine and rainbows. Collaborating and making big decisions takes grace, compassion, long conversations, and a lot of compromises. Slowly but surely our staff came to realize that Sunday School had grown stagnant. We still had a decent amount of students coming each Sunday, but it wasn’t growing, and it wasn’t as fruitful as we knew it could be. Most of our staff were able to recognize this problem. But getting everyone on board with what a change could look like felt nearly impossible. I tried to speak up, but I kept bumping up against my own insecurities. How do I have my voice heard when I feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about? How do I think of new ideas when these people have been in youth ministry for 30+ years? As a people-pleasing, introverted, enneagram 2 young woman, I felt wildly in over my head.
Thankfully, our fearless leader, Mark, wouldn’t let us give up. It took literal years for us to talk through our problem enough to finally start to see a spark of an idea for a solution. We joined CYMT, and through their innovation lab, we came up with Storytellers, a small group initiative that listens to what our students are yearning for and creates a safe place for them to learn and grow in themselves and in their faith. We stopped traditional Sunday School and started Arise, a Sunday morning gathering that is something new every single week. Arise is at our youth center, The Refuge, so our students always get to have fun and play games for the first part of the morning before we dive into a faith-based topic.
Arise has been fruitful, but it has not come without its difficulties. Because we try something new every week, it means that some weeks are awesome and some weeks are…not. Some weeks we have a short talk then we have them break up into discussion groups, some weeks we play games, some weeks we have music and a sermon, some weeks we have them write down thoughts, one week we even tasted a dozen different types of bread to celebrate World Communion Sunday. I’ve led some Sundays that felt great, and some Sundays that just totally failed. We all know how it feels to fail – it is terrible. I absolutely hate disappointing our students and our youth staff. But failure is inevitable and it’s necessary for innovation. We have to try everything to see what works and what doesn’t.
Innovation is messy, it’s difficult, it’s exhausting, and it is the single most important thing in youth ministry these days. I am not an expert on innovation – far from it. But I have learned over these past few years that innovation is the way to make sure that the church stays relevant in the lives of young people. Innovation is all about meeting people where they are at – whether that’s your staff, or your volunteers, or your students. We all have to let go of the thought that we need to be perfect. We’re never going to be perfect. But if we take the time to listen to our students, to listen to our volunteers, to listen to our staff members, really listen and not just hear it, then we can start to make change. It’s going to take time – a LOT of time. But stay the course. Wait it out. Work on it, prioritize it, and your innovation will be fruitful. Youth ministry is not easy. There are a million different emotions and opinions. But our job is so important to loving these students into the possibilities of God. And at the end of the day, that is all that matters.