Relational Webs in Small and Large Church Youth Ministry

By Rev. Greg Klimovitz, Associate Presbyter

The recent buzz of bloggers and religious periodicals has once again unearthed a hard truth: When it comes to reaching the next generation, the mainline church has a lot of work to do. The trending topic has even led some to develop programmatic angst and liturgical unrest. Yet, when you talk with pastors who serve alongside youth in both small and large congregations, like Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly and Rev. Josh Gill respectively, appropriate responses to such anxiety-inducing questions may be more organic than previously imagined.

“If we want teenagers to be present we need to create a relational web,” noted Rev. Josh Gill, Associate Pastor of Youth and Their Families at Doylestown Presbyterian Church. “All churches are small groups of people. There are pockets of people everywhere. My job is to bring those pockets together.”

Contrary to historical emphases on entertainment-based, high-energy programs as means to capture the religious interest of young people, Rev. Gill and the youth ministry leadership at Doylestown consider such programs only as effective as the relationships they foster. “The relational web is what retains kids,” said Rev. Josh Gill. “It’s not the activities; not the experience; they can get a better experience going to the IMAX than we could ever produce for them at the church. But it’s the relationships that will keep them involved.”

Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly, pastor of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church, added, “Elkins Park does not have a programmatic youth ministry because of our numbers…We have organically become very relational.” In other words, while the quantity of congregants may be less than the likes of Doylestown, the quality of relationships and the valuation of young people is anything but smaller. They have transformed their smallness into an asset for spinning relational webs, which Rev. Betz-Bogoly simply calls “intergenerational discipleship.”

One of the ways Rev. Betz-Bogoly has nurtured intergenerational and relational webs at Elkins Park has been through pulpit preaching. The metaphorical references and cultural imagery that lace her sermons are varied and refuse to isolate one generation in favor of another. Instead, as Rev. Betz-Bogoly navigates Biblical stories and Christian theology, she is just as likely to reference zombies as she is to engage historical events. A self-proclaimed “mediator of intergenerational conversations,” Rev. Betz-Bogoly interprets one element of preaching as “giving [congregants of all ages] something to tread on to have conversations across generational lines.” As this path is carved, members of Elkins Park frequently recognize the “burning questions” of young people parallel the ponderings of adults worshipping in the pew across the aisle. This provides fertile ground for the Spirit to generate conversations of connectivity that draw all people into the witness and work of the church.

Conversations of connectivity are not the only means for relational web weaving. Youth at Elkins Park are also encouraged to serve as primary players and key contributors to every aspect of the church’s ministry. Teenagers lead regularly in liturgy, play the trumpet at Easter sunrise services, and serve as mentors alongside children at Vacation Bible School. As Jasmine, a high school senior and member of Elkins Park, celebrated, “The community at Elkins Park now has affirmed me as a valued member of the congregation and contributor to the mission of God…The dedication of our parish has taught me how one small community can touch the hearts of so many people around the world.”

The same is true at Doylestown. Youth serve on search committees, lead youth-focused and congregation-wide worship services, nurture younger generations through ministry programs for kids in grades three through five, host dodgeball tournaments as fundraisers for local charities, and are ordained as deacons and ruling elders. Alison, a youth who regularly participates in the life of Doylestown Presbyterian, commented, “All of these activities and people [at Doylestown Presbyterian Church] have shown me that I am a valued member at DPC and in God’s world.”

This validation, generated through the intentional formation of relational webs, attracts the next generation, captures their theological imaginations, retains their creative involvement, and nudges them to extend invitations to their peers as co-laborers in the work and witness of the church. “I have seen kids bringing friends to church,” Rev. Josh Gill highlighted. “When I say ‘church,’ I don’t mean specifically my youth fellowship programs. I’ve seen kids bringing their friends to church because of the relationships they’ve developed with folks in the congregation.”

As the church forges ahead, aware of various generational gaps, we give thanks for what the whole community can learn from youth ministries and related leadership in our midst. In a culture all-too-familiar with silos and isolation, we pray we continue to foster space whereby relational webs form and intergenerational connectivity grows in our congregations. After all, the church is not a collection of programs; rather, the Church of Jesus Christ is an organic network of people woven into the intricate web of God’s love and grace spun throughout the world.

Listen to the video of  “Thinking on the Edges Talk” delivered by Rev. Josh Gill at the May Presbytery Meeting: