Friday, August 3, 2012

Teen Mortification & The Life Cycle of Faith

So where do you start solving the "wicked problem" of the collapsing church? Does it matter? Or can we just pick a place, anyplace, and work to solve the little bit we can or desperately must fix; Keep fiddling with that until it's working as well as possible; Figure out what we did and whether there are elements that might be applied to another bit of the problem; then start tackling that next bit? Was the eternally apropos, ever-sensible, and insightful early church re-builder, Francis of Assisi, the original solver of "wicked problems" when he said: "Start by doing what's necessary, then what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible"?

Call it random, but one possible starting point that popped up on my radar a few days ago comes from a blog article on church youth programs by Neil MacQueen (from "Sunday, A Church & Tech Blog"). (My thanks to Peggy Watts Jeffries for putting this link on Facebook.)

MacQueen, with 30 years' experience in youth ministry, argues that churches that pull youth out of worship for their own youth discussion groups are dead wrong. As the mother of a recently teenaged son, I know he's right about the forces he thinks are at work. MacQueen says the keys are: NOT taking kids out of worship services; and NOT putting them in discussion groups with other youth. Instead, he urges getting kids to DO activities with the church in a very individualized program geared specifically to their skills and interests, working one-on-one with them and letting them pick up faith by osmosis (i.e. seeing it in practice) rather than being preached at.

MacQueen doesn't put it this way, but the psychological truth is that teens and pre-teens are constantly on the brink of mortification. They are busy doing the important work of figuring out who they are; who their friends are; how they fit in; relationships with the opposite (and same) sex. There's nothing easier than embarrassing a pre-teen. So put them in a room together and ask them to talk frankly about issues that even adults find difficult to talk about... and you have the makings of instant mortification and long-term disinclination to be involved with the church. MacQueen says the disappearance of youth from churches as soon as they can get away is testimony to fundamental errors of this approach.

[As an aside, and to see if my dear son is reading my blog, I'll give my favorite example of pre-teen mortification. Dear son's name is "Sam" and I came up with what I thought was a good bit of physical schtick: I would take one of Sam's little hands, put it flat between my hands, hold up our three hands together like that and ask the friend/audience, "Do you know what this is?" And when they gave up, tell them: "A Sam handwich." Hilarious, right? Not for Sam! After about the age of 7, he absolutely refused to tell this joke or let me tell it, no matter the audience.]

Instead of agonizing personal disclosure in groups with other youth, teens should be put to work, MacQueen says, doing what they do best or whatever they can be inveigled to take on in the church. Being a bit of a techy, MacQueen's been successful in getting teens to tutor younger children in computer workshops. (Of course not every church can come up with a computer room....). He also suggests getting teens to help adults teach younger children in regular Sunday school; assist or attend adult Sunday school; or assist with the regular worship service -- ushering, etc. In a rather High-Candle Anglican church in Bonita Springs, FL, my husband was impressed with involvement of considerable numbers of youth (boys and girls) as incense-swingers, Gospel procession participants, acolytes, and ushers.

Another superb example of effective youth ministry -- which I think hits all of MacQueen's keys -- is offered by Bethesda (Maryland) UMC, led by the ineffable Amee Fansler and Pastor Ron Foster (who I see has actually written a book on the subject. I haven't read it, but the Amazon reviews seem enthusiastic.) Each year the BUMC youth have several opportunities to go off on service projects (the public schools affirm and support this by giving community service credits for working on these. All kids need community service credits to graduate in Montgomery Co.) Currently BUMC and Amee's Facebook "status" pictures show maybe 50 adults and youth who just returned from this year's service week in Tuscaloosa.

Some youth have been drummers, guitarists, and singers in BUMC's praise band; they organize and lead a (non-cringeworthy) worship service each year; and (with Amee's direction and a good supply of adult volunteers) run the gigantic, very community-based Vacation Bible School that attracts 300 kids for a riotous week in August. The youth do a lock-in 30-hour fast to raise money for WorldVision. They dress up to host elegant Valentine's Day romantic suppers as fund-raisers for the church. But my favorite of their fundraisers is "Mingo May": For a tidy sum, you can have a friend/ family/ neighbor's lawn "flocked" with large tacky plastic pink flamingos for 24 hours (then they disappear) in May.  Or you can purchase "Mingo Insurance" for a higher sum to assure that your lawn does NOT get flocked. (My dear sister got flocked the day before her home-garden wedding, but I couldn't possibly say who ordered that!)

BUMC youth don't leave the sanctuary during worship services, but do tend to have their own hangout section of the balcony. They have gatherings on various evenings of the week for different age groups (never been to one, but my impression is that they are action- rather than talk-oriented, especially for the pre-teens.) Members of the confirmation class are assigned a non-family adult mentor from within the church and meet with them one-on-one to talk about faith issues and to do a project together. My assigned confirmand, Sara Foster (yep, the pastor's daughter -- gulp), was interested in scrapbooking, so she and I made scrapbook pages of one of BUMC's service trips. Low key. I did talk about my faith a bit and ask her about hers. I hope I didn't do any permanent damage.

I'm not sure of all the other ingredients in the confirmation program, but I do recollect that memorization was required. Sam already knew his Lord's Prayer. But I think he also had to learn a Bible passage by heart -- maybe the Beatitudes or the 23rd Psalm or the Ten Commandments? As tedious as memorization can be, I approve of memorizing a few of the most essential tenets of the faith. Keep to the essentials and try to have some fun doing the memorizing, but require it-- memorized bits sink deep into the psyche and worm their way into core values, perhaps. Or maybe they'll just be there as comforting lyrics for a moment when you desperately need them--like "The Mary Ellen Carter" (the most inspirational song I know), which is credited with saving the life of Robert M. Cusick when he was lost at sea after his ship, the Marine Electric, sank.

Stealing a page from the large Jewish community in Bethesda, the BUMC confirmation class celebrates after the event with a mass "Confirmitzvah"-- a giant party for friends and family, replete with food and frolics. Sam and his good friend and fellow confirmand, Daniel, invited their best friends from school; Sam's "Ba" (Grandad), Aunnie, and future step-Dad traveled to Maryland for the event, and everyone had a fun time. I think it was a great showcase for a church that is doing youth programs -- and a lot of other things  -- in a way that serves Christian faith well in the 21st century.

One of the best things about the BUMC youth programs and other programs is that they continue to evolve, adapt, and, I hope, improve. What I've written about is just the tip of the iceberg that I know about from my now much-missed life at BUMC, which drew to a close when I moved in 2006. Overall, Amee, the youth program, and BUMC appear to be going from strength to strength. It looks like it's still a happy church, a place people want to go on Sundays (and other days and evenings). It's got the Right Stuff -- however you want to gauge that. Surely other churches and other church anti-extinction efforts can glean some ideas about the nature of their problems -- if not the solutions -- by looking at MacQueen's model and examples like BUMC.

The success or failure of some of these experiments for saving or at least improving the church may not be known for many years--if ever. Despite making it through BUMC's confirmation class, my son no longer has any interest in church. Of course he's not a good test case, as we've left the USA and I've yet to encounter any churches here that are even vaguely like BUMC.

Recalling my own confirmation in the 1960s, I think First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor basically made most of the mistakes MacQueen identifies. I remember "MYF" (Methodist Youth Fellowship)  and confirmation class as mortifying -- large, excruciating, gatherings of kids I did not want to be with (who were doubtless also forced to be there by their parents). I can't remember learning a single thing about faith. I witnessed nothing of the personal faith of the few adults involved, nor do I recall an invitation to think about or develop my faith. And, given the way they did things back then,  if they had, it probably would have pushed me from mortified to petrified. When confirmation day rolled around,  my parents were on one of their few trips without the kids. I think I took a taxi to church on my own.

I don't know whether my youthful mortification or my parents' sabbatical trip were to blame, but I pretty much dropped out of church after confirmation. I was married at "First Church" in Ann Arbor, but I didn't have further involvement with any church until more than a decade later. When I finally did come back, in my 30s, it's been for good, and despite constant and numerous doubts--an equipoise endeavor.

Is there a natural life-cycle to faith? Should church youth programs aim at getting young people to stay with the church throughout their lives? Or should they aim lower -- just try to help teens see the church as a place that's not too awful -- that they might want to come back to some day? Or should the goal be just to try to instill  some Jesus-values that people can practice throughout their lives, irrespective of church attendance? The latter would be a difficult result to measure, and maybe isn't going to keep churches alive, but strikes me as an impossibly wonderful end to the rainbow arching out from what's necessary and actually possible.

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