How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church

In youth ministry we’ve begun to notice that two things occur as our youth programs become increasingly self-sustaining and disconnected from the rest of the church: The adults in our congregation feel left out, uninformed and unappreciated, and the teenagers in our groups fail to become a part of the larger church family as God intends.

Having taken classes from youth ministry leader Chap Clark while pursuing my M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to attend a learning lab on “Sticky Faith,” led by Fuller Youth Institute’s Kara Powell and Brad Griffin at the National Youth Workers Convention in November 2011.

 

As soon as I returned home I began to see this phenomenon of separation in our own church, and began to talk about it with our parents and adult leadership team. Together we agreed that an intergenerational approach to our youth ministry would be a win-win for everyone.

One way we’ve begun to create more intergenerational connection is by regularly hosting what we call a “Ministry Mixer,” an event to bring together our youth ministry with the various adult ministries of our larger church family. Our very first Ministry Mixer was a joint mission project creating sleeping mats for the homeless population of downtown Dallas, using “plarn,” or yarn made by cutting and connecting the scraps of plastic grocery bags.

I had very high hopes for the first mixer event. I printed out pages with discussion questions to place at each table and dreamed of the lengthy conversations that would take place between youth and adults. I was a bit disappointed when the natural seating arrangements of the room became a microcosm of our church: The adults sitting together and chatting freely on one side, and the youth sitting together and listening to their music on the other. Though I encouraged them to mix and mingle, each time I looked away the room would naturally regain its homeostasis. Everybody had a great time and the event was chalked up as a success, but I knew that there was so much more potential for interaction.

So we reflected, re-evaluated and decided to try again with a more intentional approach. I recalled a fellow youth pastor telling me how he incorporated the model of speed-dating as a fun way to get adults and teenagers to carry on conversations face-to-face. We decided to try it by inviting one particular adult Sunday school class to join our youth group for a potluck lunch and an afternoon of speed-dating-style storytelling.

I asked each member of the adult class to bring a single item associated with a story or memory. Following our lunch together, I had all of the older adults sit in a circle around a large room. I had an inner circle of chairs directly facing each adult chair. This inner circle was filled by our teenagers. I explained that I would be sounding a chime every three minutes to signal the end of a round, at which point the adults would remain seated while the youth would rotate one chair to their right. By the time we were finished, each teenager had rotated around the entire circle, experiencing two dozen different show-and-tells, and each adult in the circle had told their story two dozen times. (I made sure to tell them to bring an item that they wouldn’t mind sharing about over and over and over!)

 

To conclude the afternoon, we held a jeopardy-style quiz and gave Starbucks cards to the teenager who could answer the most questions about all of the stories, the teenager who could name the most adults, and even to the adult who could name the most students.

Every once in a while in ministry there is a moment when you unexpectedly realize that the ground on which you are standing is holy. Looking around the room that afternoon, seeing the smiles on the faces of the participants, listening to the stories being told, the questions being asked and the memories being shared, I recognized that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us. From the model of a plane flown in the Vietnam War, to the wood plank of the razed house that someone’s great-grandfather had built, to pictures of grandchildren, high school letterman jackets and everything in between, the wide eyes of our young people said it all.

Our teenagers need adults in their lives. Our adults need young people in theirs. When the body of Christ is operating as God designed, the church is a gathering of family. It takes all shapes and sizes, all ages and generations.

I cannot tell you how many positive comments I have received from both youth and adults who participated in that Ministry Mixer. Everybody is already talking about the next one!

Whether this intergenerational event—or the other elements of the Sticky Faith initiative that we are continuing to incorporate—will increase the number of young adults who remain involved in churches after high school graduation, is yet to be seen. But I can tell you this: When each of those students looks back on their time with our youth group, and they recall the adults who cared enough about them to share their own stories, they will have a picture of the church as a family that values and needs each of its members.

It’s my prayer that those who remain active in the faith will be encouraged, and that the hearts of those who have drifted away will be pulled back by these memories, to a congregation they can again call family.

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*The great people at Fuller Youth Institute recently invited me to write this guest article for their “Sticky Faith” website.  It was originally published here: “How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church.”

*Additionally, the United Methodist Reporter decided to publish it as well, under a slightly different title: “How an Intergenerational Mixer Changed Our Church.”

"Living Intensionally" (not a typo)

As a youth pastor, I often get questions that start off with something like, “Well, where do you stand on…,” hoping to get a definitive response.  You have probably heard the oft-quoted saying, “If you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything.”  In a world of constant change, people are always searching for answers and continuously looking to others for guidance.  Many people get frustrated when the answer they are given isn’t as black-and-white as they would like.

The truth of the matter is that life isn’t always as black-and-white as we’d like it to be. 

Now, that might sound heretical at first glance, but think about it.  When something terrible happens in our life (e.g., the loss of a loved one, the loss and subsequent search for employment, financial stress, disappointments with spouses/siblings/children) our natural reaction is to ask, “Why?”  We want a nicely packaged answer, tied up with a bow, and we want it now.  Nice answers help us make sense of life.

What if, however, we gave life permission to not make sense at times? 

It would certainly be easier if every answer to life’s toughest questions were black-and-white and simple.  It would make politics a lot less exciting, that’s for sure!  Imagine if everyone knew the correct way to alleviate poverty on a national scale–and, if we could all agree that it was clearly, without question, the single best solution.

Jesus seemed to frustrate people with the answers he gave to their questions.  Remember in Luke 10 when the lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  In typical “Jesus-style,” he replies by asking a question: “What is written in the law?  How do you read it?”  After Jesus affirms the lawyer’s answer that one is to “love God” and “love your neighbor,” the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Does Jesus answer him directly?  Of course not.  Instead, he follows up with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan–not exactly what the lawyer was looking for.

A good answer is not always a direct answer, and it is certainly not always as clear as we’d prefer.

One of things that I have come to love about Wesleyan theology is its affirmation of the “via media,” or the middle way.  That’s not to say that it’s wrong to ever take a stand on something, but it is definitely unwise to do so before diligently considering all possible options.  Once that process of discerning and study has taken place, those whose theology lives on the “via media” may hold a very strong opinion about something, but not without allowing the “other side” of the argument to speak freely. 

The “via media” is about living in tension between two poles.  While it’s perfectly fine to be convinced whole-heartedly about certain issues, there are some questions in life that require an approach of humility, one that allows multiple voices to inform the conversation.  Sometimes the answers to life’s hardest questions aren’t “either/or” but “both/and.”  This is often referred to as conjunctive-theology. 

Someone might ask, “Where do you stand on saving for retirement?”  Someone on one side may say, “Every penny you save is one less penny being actively used for God’s Kingdom.”  Someone on the other side might say, “Every penny you save helps to guarantee a comfortable life of retirement and an inheritance to pass on to your children.”  Theologically, there are pros and cons of both sides.  I could decide to take a hard stance on one side or the other, but I choose to lean in one direction, while living in the tension that exists between the two.

You can think of plenty other examples that could illustrate my point more clearly, but the bottom line is this: answers in life are not always black-and-white.  We do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we attempt to force-wrap “pretty” answers into nice little packages.  In reality, living in a messy world requires us to live intensionally (in-tension-ally) and learn to be comfortable on the “via media.”

Is this easy?  Not at all.  It can be very unsettling, actually.  But when we give life permission to not always make sense, and when we give our minds permission to not have every answer, we enter into the freedom of living intensionally in the midst of God’s grace… something I believe a man named Paul spoke a bit about in Romans 7 and 8.