By Rev. Greg Klimovitz
What does a congregation do when enrollment is too low to warrant the implementation of a previously-planned summer VBS?
For the Anchor Presbyterian Church in Wrightsville, they pivoted volunteer energies of committed middle school youth and launched an impromptu, week-long experiment in local mission. “I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to minister to the youth,” remarked Rev. Leah Miller, pastor of the Anchor Presbyterian Church. “Kids have the hope of Christ to share, just like adults do, so why not start that early. Why not give them opportunities to express and share that hope and God’s love from where they are now?”
What was known as the Week of Hope, 11 middle school youth immersed themselves in five days of service, learning, and spiritual formation alongside residents in their immediate neighborhoods and community ministries throughout Greater Philadelphia. Youth sorted toys and clothing donations at Hands in Service, constructed a free little lending library (www.freelittlelibrary.com) outside Anchor’s preschool entrance, and provided lawn and garden care for an elderly church member. Middle school youth also volunteered with the Philadelphia Diaper Bank, which directly benefits low-income neighbors who previously resorted to the reuse of diapers due to the high cost of a new parent’s basic necessity. Each of these ministry efforts was coordinated through connections within their congregation and affirmed mission does not have to involve travel to a distant land. As Rev. Miller affirmed, “We can do so much in our area. Our own neighbors need help.”
Potentially the most beautiful result of the Week of Hope, however, was the way the improvisational program engaged middle school youth for whom this was their first experience with church or youth ministry. A congregation with few youth on their church rolls, Anchor’s experiment tapped into the compassion of their young neighbors and affirmed they were included in the witness of the church and God’s unfolding story of redemption. “The Week of Hope really meant that I was really a part of the church,” commented Emma, a local seventh grader. “I was doing my part.”
This authentic message of agency in God’s mission quickly spread. Youth returned day after day with carloads of friends to join in local service and occasional holy mischief, like painting rocks with biblical words of hope and scattering them throughout their town, Tyler State Park, and along rivers on their end-of-week tubing adventure. In the midst of a world strained by despair and isolation, this playful practice assured that even the rocks would cry out messages of love and belonging to passerbys who stumbled upon these colorful icons. It also was a reminder that participation in the divine life and care of neighbor can be a joyous venture. “Week of Hope was a fun way to help others and get closer to God,” added eighth grader Lucian.
As the Anchor church combined play and participation in neighborly love, the congregation uncovered that they indeed had a youth ministry able to draw middle schoolers into a relationship with God. “People might look at our church and say, ‘you don’t have a youth program; you don’t have youth; what are you talking about?’” remarked Rev. Miller. “But if you look beyond the traditional sense of youth groups and ministry within your bounds, you know that you have a ministry that is to whoever is in your community. And they came out of nowhere. Friends. Neighbors. Parents were excited to have their kids involved in something like this.”
As congregations large and small continue to discern ministry possibilities alongside the next generation of change-makers, may the witness of Anchor dare us to look into our communities and remain open to the ideas and passions of our youngest neighbors. Even more, when traditional programs, like a well-planned VBS, no longer prove effective in our local witness, may the church be open and adaptive to how the Spirit can resurrect new ventures to live into the redemptive hope of the gospel. As Rev. Miller said, “Something that at first seemed disappointing- a failure in way- God redeemed it.” Thanks be to God.
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