Young and in church: tips for healthy youth ministries
For David Stump in Cocoa Beach, the secret is mission trips.
For Jason Renault in Orange Park, it’s wiffle ball.
And for Rev. Charley Watts in Moore Haven, it’s a pink coiffure – sported from the Sunday morning lectern.
At a time when many Christian churches in America struggle to attract what some sociologists call Generation Z, these youth ministry leaders from Florida United Methodist congregations of different sizes and communities do whatever it takes to get young people to church.
Watts, who is both pastor and youth ministry leader at First UMC, Moore Haven, describes the community around his church west of Lake Okeechobee as "very small, very rural, with a combined middle and high school enrollment of about 360."
In 2010, the church reported eight active youth members, ranging from sixth through 12th grade, according to Florida Conference Knowledge & Information Services’ records.
Today, T&T, which stands for Teens and Tweens, has swelled to 70 active members, Watts says.
To the north, First UMC, Cocoa Beach, is a medium-size congregation located in a retirement community on Florida’s Atlantic coast. When Stump, youth ministry director, and his wife, Pastor Melissa Stump, first came on board, there were four youngsters in a group run by one volunteer mom.
Four years later, the youth ministry has over 40 active members on its roster.
And, at Orange Park UMC, a 1,200-member congregation in northeast Florida that had 18 active youth group members in 2010, the program has grown to over 70, says Renault, who was the church student ministries director before transitioning to Congregational Care in late May.
Youth leadership is key
Getting the kids to steer their own way seems to be a key ingredient common to all three ministries, according to the directors.
At First UMC, Moore Haven, a typical two-hour evening program starts with a 30-minute game of slip-and-slide kickball, then a meal of hamburgers or tacos followed by a video and finally a lesson.
Watts says the kids choose and prepare Bible lessons themselves a week in advance.
"They write it, we read it and offer suggestions. They present it and we follow up with our take on the lesson."
Watts encourages them to share positive experiences with peers. He recently offered an unusual reward if they could bring 20 new kids to the program: He promised to dye his hair pink.
"It took a while to get that pink dye out – and I received quite a reaction from my congregation in the morning," Watts says.
David Stump, a recent graduate of Youth Ministry Institute in Orlando, says the group dynamic at the Cocoa Beach church was rather cliquish and close-knit at first. This prompted him to focus on lessons of fellowship and being inviting.
"It's how the church is supposed to be," he says.
The youth leader adds that plans the young people make for community service and beyond have been vital to the group’s success.
Cocoa Beach youths started with small service projects around town to get their feet wet.
Then they graduated to weeklong mission trips within the state, including projects at Florida United Methodist Children's Home near DeLand.
This year's summer mission trip will be out of state, to Alabama.
"They decide and sign off on projects that are relevant to them, to their world," David Stump says.
Orange Park's youth director, Renault, grew up in a great church youth group environment and says he felt the call to offer teenagers those same experiences. For the past 16 years, he has been doing just that.
His game plan? Person-to-person recruiting and outreach activities, including an eight-week wiffle ball league.
The kids plan and run the league and invite their friends to join, he says. The teens have fun, and some of them stick around.
"The wiffle ball league is our hook to get them to come back and join the group," Renault says.
Rewards beyond growth
Youth ministry leadership can sometimes seem like a thankless job, but all three ministers agree that the rewards outweigh the sacrifices.
David Stump recalls a special learning experience in which patience paid off.
During a small group lecture, he noticed one student consistently typing away on her smartphone.
He hesitated to ask her to stop and found out later she was looking up the verses on her Bible app as he preached.
"She was way ahead of me. It was a positive, rewarding experience; it's a part of their digital age culture," he says.
Renault sees the rewards in lasting relationships.
"Just hearing from them from time to time and seeing them turn out as adults with their lives together -- it's neat seeing the fruits of your labors," he says.
Watts shares an experience about a 15-year-old girl raised in an atheist household being brought to the Moore Haven youth group by a friend one night. She kept coming back and eventually joined and led lessons for the younger members.
The pastor fondly remembers being called in to join her when the young woman accepted the Lord.
"She told me later, ‘If you had said I would be here a year ago, I would have laughed in your face.’"
– Raymond Joseph is a freelance writer based in Bradenton.