Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The youth at my Russian church

When I moved to St. Petersburg I was focused on children’s ministry since I had just been ministering in the summer camps. But my church that I settled into had just a few kids on Sunday mornings, and no teenagers. I didn’t really have anywhere to bring the teenagers I’d met. We did a few McDonald’s outings and such. One girl and I went to the zoo. But really, what teenager wants to hang out with a random 20-something American lady? And furthermore, what Russian parent wants his or her children hanging out with a stranger from the U.S.? At least, that was what I worried about. The good news is that now a lot of those teenagers are grown-up now and it’s not as awkward to go out for coffee. But I remember one boy who took his own life. You only have so much time…

Doing ministry in a big city is different in that local churches don’t necessarily gain a reputation in the neighborhood. “Oh, I know that church, we went to a Christmas program there.” Nothing like that. Parents can’t ask around to see if other parents have sent their kids to such-and-such VBS. The Protestant churches aren’t really known around town, and the Orthodox churches are known more for their location/building than for fellowship opportunities. So it really takes a friend leading a friend for new people to be able to discover church life.

That brings us to the present. A few people in our church are involved in summer camp ministry, which is great. Our pastor talked about presenting the Gospel and all those little hands shooting up in the air because they wanted to receive Jesus. That brings back so many memories for me. Of course it always looks slightly questionable to an outsider, but I know what it’s like to be there and watching a person’s demeanor changing as the Holy Spirit works. Children are fully capable of understanding the need in their own hearts!
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After coming back from these adventures, one young man in our church is totally broken over the future of our teenagers. Kids are in Sunday school now; then they sort of “age out” as Sunday school gets boring. After that we have Small Groups, which they could technically come to, but it would be a little hard for them to travel to a different neighborhood and stay out that late on a school night.

Do teens need a separate ministry? I remember being motivated to serve as I attended youth group and had fellowship with other teens who were facing similar life issues, growing up Christian while attending a secular school. But I’m not sure if it was the fact that they were peers or just the fellowship itself that helped me feel like a part of the Church. I know that I would have been terrified to speak up at a Small Group if there had been people of all ages…but then again, I always enjoyed the Russia team, which was mixed ages.

People argue that Youth Group needs to be “fun” to attract youth. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s fun to play games and unwind, but I’m not sure if they affect a person’s reaction to the Gospel. If he’s interested, he’ll keep coming regardless. If he’s not interested, he may keep coming just for the social aspects. But I agree that a person needs to be able to feel relaxed and safe in order to share about deeper topics.

There is also the idea of a shared commitment…doing something together. From a parent’s point of view: my child is going somewhere to play games with some religious fanatics. It doesn’t seem to have hurt him. But wouldn't it reach a parent's heart to see a child getting involved in volunteer work, getting priorities straight, maybe learning some practical skills? And the youth is getting more than a feel-good experience; he's contributing to something bigger than himself.

So back to our church. Pasha pleads in a choked-up tone: We have to reach our teens before they’re gone. In a few more years another group of them will be teenagers, and then the others, and they will all gradually slip through the cracks and leave the Church.

What is more important? For the youth to have a program just for them, or for the youth to be included in the life of the church? Should they just patiently listen to the sermon and tag along to events with their parents, or should special attention be given? I feel the urgency too and once again I don't have a solution, but I can see hearts being set on fire to reach the youth. The desire is being channeled into prayer, and surely the Lord will provide a way.

I've seen some discussion around the Internet about integrated churches, where there is no division of ministries by age. Again I cannot say what is best, but I love when ages are mixed, as long as no one is left out. While we don't have a youth program, why not work with what we have? I’d really like to get some of the girls helping out with Sunday school. Other Sunday school teachers could be mentors and the teens would get a chance to serve. Of course they are helpful as it is, but having an official responsibility would be a chance for personal growth.

 I realize that this was more of a personal meditation and not so much a response to a Bible passage or other body of text. Maybe I'll come across some confirmation later as I read. Any thoughts?


  1. Hi,
    I have read your blog for a long time, just haven't commented before :) I'm English and I am studying Russian at university. It's been great to read all about your personal experiences of life in Russia, especially as I prepared for my year abroad, which I'm spending in Kiev right now!
    On the topic of teenagers, this period of life is really where everything changes, there are so many huge decisions to make, and loads of different outside pressures. Therefore, it is vital that they are planted in church.
    Thinking of my own church, we have a youth ministry, but this takes on different forms, sometimes it is big meetings (we have about 300 kids), but most of the time it is small groups. I know from my own experience, and also from watching the teenagers who are in it now,that this works really well. They just need a place where they can be themselves and have fun, without having to worry about maybe being slightly too rowdy for the older people in the small group. And you'll be surprised how much wisdom comes out of their hearts when they are with their peers and forget to worry about their lack of knowledge compared to their elders'.
    Involve them and give them responsibility. They need to realise their value in the body of Christ and also to develop in maturity. Some of the best kids' leaders are teenagers - they have more energy, more enthusiasm, more understanding(seeing as they've only just come out of childhood themselves)...
    Church is to be enjoyed, not endured!!
    Sophie :)

  2. Sorry it took me so long to respond! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder about the "too rowdy" part. I guess I am getting too old. :) I think about all the crazy games and skits at youth ministries and wonder...is that all really necessary for spiritual development? On the other hand, it's FUN. It gives you positive feelings (maybe)about church and your friends there. But do all teenagers love getting crazy, and do all adults hate it? Where does the idea come from that adults are no fun? After all, youth group leaders often join in the fun. Maybe an idea would be to plan fun AND serious activities for all ages. But I'm just musing here.

    I definitely agree that it's a very specific stage of life and that teenagers need to be able to discuss the problems unique to them.


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