This pandemic has forced us into new ways of doing things — working from home and communicating on Zoom, wearing masks and standing six feet apart, in some cases staying home when we’d normally go to religious services. For clergy and those who do church work, they’ve been live on Facebook, recorded on YouTube, and some are finally gathering at their houses of worship, sitting with a lot of space between each other. For youth ministers, or any folks who work with young people in the area of religion, flexibility and rolling with the punches is a built-in job requirement.
I talked with a couple of people, Nate Schaff and Lisa Belcastro, who work with youth groups in a Christian setting because I wanted to know how they make God and Jesus relevant. I spoke with Good Shepherd parish youth minister Nate about how he keeps faith alive for the kids he works with, those in grades 7 to 12.
“Well, I guess the way to make it relevant to them is to present the faith in a way that makes sense to them, in a way that they can apply in concrete ways,” Nate said. “There’s a lot of discussion when we cover a topic; we break into small groups. Rather than preaching that this is the way it is, we give them time to ask questions, and sometimes they ask really hard questions. We let them know that questioning is OK, it allows us to go deeper.”
In other words, he leads programs in an active way; he may start out with games or activities or a prayer experience, rather than “preaching and teaching,” he explained. I asked him what might happen in one of the programs at Good Shepherd — there are three of them, one for middle school kids, one for ninth graders getting ready to be confirmed in the faith, and another is a small-but-growing high school group that meets once a week. He said that lately they’ve been looking at fundamental ideas such as why we exist, what our goals are, what we are made for. They’ve been talking about whether material things bring true happiness.
“Will material things make us happy, or do our hearts long for something more, or something greater?” Nate said. He explained that the groups have also talked about Jesus by looking at historical references, so that the young people realize that Jesus is not just talked about in a single book that churches want them to read, but that he lived, and he’s still effective in their lives.
For Nate, 31, youth ministry became a part of his life when he was in a youth group himself in middle school.
“I met a friend whose family was very devout, and we started doing a Bible study, and it’s something I’ve been passionate about ever since,” he said. “Today, there’s so much our teens are facing, and without a foundation of faith, of truths we can rely on, it’s hard to make sense of everything going on in the world.”
Lisa is in my writers’ group, and I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as excited about Jesus as Lisa, so I figured she’d be willing to share how she spreads that enthusiasm to young people. She is co-president of Cornerstone Youth, and they run vacation Bible camps in the summer and a weekly youth group, Until Forever, on Saturdays. The youth group has grown so much that they’re creating a second group for kids 13 and older.
“We have children from eight different churches, as well as children who do not attend church on a regular basis,” Lisa said. “Some of our students are new to faith in Christ, or are seeking. We have quite a few students who have been raised in Christian homes, or have at least one parent or grandparent who has shared Jesus with them, and they are continuing to grow and learn. And we have a dozen or so students who seek God daily in their lives, who spend time reading God’s word because they want to, and who mentor the younger children in our group.”
When I asked Lisa how she keeps the Christian faith relevant for young people, she wrote to me, “This is easy. Everything we say and do should reflect Christ. Jesus is all about love. Our words and actions should reflect the love of Christ. We talk about everyday living, what we might encounter, and how Jesus would respond. If Jesus saw a person sad and sitting by himself, would Jesus go sit and talk to that person? If you fight with someone and call names, is that how Jesus would act? Would Jesus punch or hit someone if He was angry? Would Jesus lie, cheat, swear, steal? Would Jesus help a friend? It’s pretty simple when we all get down to it — if our words and actions are not loving and kind, we’re probably not reflecting Jesus.”
There is one basic concept above all others that Lisa wants to be sure she imparts to the young people. “The most important truth I want the children to know is that God loves them. Every human being wants to be known and loved, and children are no different than adults. They crave love, they long to be fully seen and heard. The deepest and most important truth I try each week to communicate to them, to show them, and to give them is the love of Christ.”
There is one aspect of working with young people that both youth ministers agreed on: Working with youth makes their own faith grow.
“It definitely adds to my own spirituality,” Nate said. “I find that if I talk the talk, then I have to walk the walk, so it challenges me not to grow lazy in my own spiritual walk, and challenges me to answer the questions the world is asking and not necessarily the questions I want to answer.”
Nate said it’s a humbling experience to let the young people know that he might not have an answer, but he says that God has the answers. “I don’t have the answers but I believe the church does; it’s led by Him, not us. I don’t have to have all the answers because it doesn’t all depend on me. It’s God’s work, and we’re just the laborers in the vineyard.”
Lisa says that watching the kids grow in their love for Jesus, and for other people, fills her heart.
“Talking about Jesus, discussing Scripture, what verses are guiding us or grounding us at that moment, keeps me just as centered and focused on Christ as I pray it does for each child.”
What about parents who are worried that once their children get older, they won’t want anything to do with church? Lisa says pray about it, and model the behavior you want to see in your children. Let them see your own joyful heart and how you trust God in every situation. And keep inviting them to church, if that’s what you want, but don’t nag. And pray some more so that you cover your children in a blanket of prayer. I think even I can do that.