Geoff Strehlow illustration

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Correspondent

Youth ministry at Trinity Church in Iowa City has long depended on components that just aren’t feasible in a global pandemic. Pilgrimage, social events, and service projects: all canceled. Even the thought of moving the regular curriculum to Zoom is a non-starter for many families exhausted by online fatigue.

But youth group is far from finished at Trinity. Instead, it’s making a back-to-basics shift designed to be refreshing for tired souls in extraordinary times.

Building relationships, including with God through prayer, will be the focus. As long as the congregation is offering in-person worship, the youth group will gather for youth-led, socially distanced compline outside, according to Parish Life Coordinator Nora Boerner.

“My main focus with the youth group specifically is community building and having us pray together,” said Boerner, who was ill with COVID-19. “Even if they just spend time with one another, or they spend time online with one another and they pray a little bit, I’m going to consider that a win. So we might be off a little bit on our hard curriculum this year.”

As ministries everywhere settle in for a long haul amidst pandemic restrictions, youth ministries have been particularly impacted. Congregations have been quicker to reopen for worship than to bring youth back. A LifeWay Research survey of 443 Protestant pastors over July 20-22 found more than 70 percent of churches had resumed in-person worship, but 51 percent still didn’t know when in-person ministry with students would begin again.

“Maintaining social distance and necessary sanitation is very difficult with younger ages,” said LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell in a statement. “To complicate things further, some of the volunteers who normally work with kids and students are in higher risk groups who are not ready to return any time soon.”

With so much disruption afoot, congregations have been taking stock of what’s needed from youth ministry now and how best to deliver it. They’re repositioning it to be less achievement-oriented and more spiritually renewing for youth, parents, and local ministry leaders alike.

Though situations vary with locale, common principles are shaping the fall 2020 youth ministry landscape. Amongst priorities that youth ministry experts recommend: be vigilant about safety. Mix up programming, allowing for some silly fun as well as sincere disclosures from youth craving to be heard. Join forces online with youth groups from other congregations. Perhaps don’t assemble more than 10 in person, but safe mission projects in small numbers can still be valuable.

“The key is smaller groups and building relationships during this time,” said Baylor University Assistant Professor of Practical Theology Angela Gorrell, co-author of a 30-page Guide to Taking Youth Ministry Online. She suggests assigning each leader to just a few youth, no more than 12 per leader. Invest in each participant by texting, asking how you can be praying for them and scheduling Zoom small groups on a regular basis. Ask how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking about daily. Take notes on what you hear.

“If you really dedicate time to talking to youth about what’s going on in their lives, then ministry issues will be unearthed,” Gorrell said.

She recommends letting youth responses inform what happens next. For example, if leaders hear themes of loneliness or fears of missing out on life during the pandemic, then a next step could be to design a ritual outlet for their lament. It could involve inviting each youth to make art conveying lament, or encouraging each one to walk a labyrinth. The ministry can get creative even if participants are not meeting in person.

For youth ministry to work out in pandemic times, all involved — including parents — need assurance that safety precautions are in place. Besides heeding public health protocols, youth leaders also need to be vigilant to keep online settings safe from abuse.

Experts caution that pandemic conditions are ripe for abuse to occur, and youth ministry leaders need to be proactive. Dove’s Nest is an Omaha-based nonprofit that provides resources to prevent abuse and ensure children’s safety in churches and at home. Executive Director Anna Groff paints a scenario for how online a youth group session online can go awry.

“A handful of kids show up for a youth group with one adult,” Groff said. “One child shares a vulnerability in their life or appears to be unsupervised at home and online. Then that youth leader would ask for a private Zoom session, a call or some way to be alone with them in a virtual setting and cross a boundary — or worse.”

Groff recommends a few safeguards to prevent abuse:

  • Have two unrelated adults present
  • Record Zoom sessions
  • Keep parents informed about what’s being planned
  • Discourage youth from being on camera in their bedrooms
  • If you observe signs of abuse in the home, be prepared to take appropriate steps

Once safety is addressed, youth groups can get on to the serious business of fun. That’s an important component this fall, even for groups that still strive to impart Christian lessons and allow room for serious conversations.

At Houston’s Palmer Memorial Church, gathering youth on Sunday mornings is no longer part of the program, as it used to be pre-pandemic. Families are already stretched thin at that time of week as they try to hop online for worship and coffee hour, according Director of Christian Formation Roger Hutchinson. He said the church is being cautious not to ask too much of families or to burn anyone out.

Youth group learning time at Palmer now happens on Tuesday nights in a Zoom Bible study format, which Hutchinson says has been a refreshing change of pace for youth participants. They meet again on Thursdays, but just for games. Classics like charades and bingo are adapted for Zoom, and youth want to show up for something that’s just fun.

“It’s taking some old school kinds of things and giving them new life on Zoom,” said Hutchinson, author of The Very Best Day: The Way of Love for Children, which came out in January. The game structure usually “doesn’t require them to have anything. Sometimes the games don’t even work out: it’s just a lot of laughter, and they’re playing. It’s being together in a relaxed kind of way, and games are a part of that.”

A similar concept gives rise to a somewhat different format at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Youth lessons that used to happen on Sunday mornings now occur Monday nights on Zoom. But the format is condensed: 10 minutes for check-in, five for a game and 15 for instruction.

This approach ensures youth still get biblical teaching that’s tailored to their lives but doesn’t burn them out after a day of online school, said Thomas Brackeen, Metropolitan’s minister to youth and families. Gathering on Zoom also allows them to see each other more often than they would in person because Metropolitan is what Brackeen calls a “commuter church” with member families scattered across the region.

“What can we do on Mondays that looks different from Sunday so that they will be engaged and want to come back to be part of that space?” Brackeen asked. “Whether it’s drawing or playing a game, they can feel a community. Being amongst fellow Christians in their peer group is important, but we’re also giving them a little Scripture and life application before they leave.”

Congregations are also getting new support this fall for youth programming from their dioceses. For example, Iowa youth groups will be coming together once a month for youth-led, online compline, organized by the Diocese of Iowa.

The Diocese of Atlanta hosts Sunday night online youth group with compline for 30 to 40 middle schoolers and high schoolers for congregations across the region. Musicians play guitar and sing. Youth hear a five-minute talk related to current events and get a chance to share what’s happening in their lives.

And rather than require youth leaders to forge new programming in a time when many are worn down by the pandemic, they’re joining forces with sister churches. For example, youth groups from St. Catherine’s Church in Marietta and St. David’s Church in Roswell have been doing the Diocese of Atlanta’s Dismantling Racism Youth Curriculum together online.

When the pandemic began, “we hit the ground running hard and sprinting when we needed to be pacing ourselves,” said Easton Davis, director of youth and young adult ministries for the Diocese of Atlanta. “We’re seeing a lot of youth ministers that are tired right now and congregations that are tired right now. They’re rethinking their strategies for how we move forward in this work.”