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Churches reaching out to Generation Y

For churches, reaching youths may be harder than ever, but some trends have local youth pastors optimistic about the future. The challenges are clear. Richie Townsend, youth pastor at Gloria Dei, says television may be the greatest competition. H...

For churches, reaching youths may be harder than ever, but some trends have local youth pastors optimistic about the future.
The challenges are clear. Richie Townsend, youth pastor at Gloria Dei, says television may be the greatest competition. His reading, he says, "points out the fact that kids are indoctrinated through television and all forms of media, but mostly through television, through commercials."
"Parents and spiritual leaders could probably stand to try to get equal time," he said.
Mark Pavola, executive director at the Head of the Lakes chapter of Youth for Christ, echoed those sentiments, noting that pop culture pushes kids to conform and fit in, and the vision often doesn't include Christianity.
And the pressures on kids are greater. "I think that kids are dealing with more now than they ever have in the past," Pavola said. "I think they have more temptations than they have had in the past."
Area clergy point to issues like violence, racism and sexuality as key to Generation Y. Chuck Peterson, youth pastor at Hermantown Community Church, has seen dramatic change.
"The things that we dealt with 10 years ago were similar, but not to the extremes that we're dealing with now," he said.
All of which has area clergy believing the Christian message is more urgent than ever.
From a pragmatic standpoint, Pavola said, surveys show kids with a faith system are more likely to stay out of trouble and make "good choices." He said estimates showing the Twin Ports worse than the national average in the number of "unchurched" kids should worry parents.
And it's not just pragmatism.
"I think churches play a role that no other institution can play," said Shivon Ringdahl Miller, youth and intergenerational ministries director at Peace United, citing the acceptance, answers and community available in a church congregation.
Approaching Generation Y
Churches are changing how they reach out to kids and reporting success, both in retaining youths within their congregations and in reaching out to the "unchurched."
For starters, they are focusing on helping kids in trouble -- from threats ranging from hunger to abuse to neglect.
"Kids are seeking answers and really struggling with life issues, and they're looking to the church," said Ringdahl Miller.
Sometimes, they're just looking for love. "Hopefully, a church is a place that, no matter who you are and what you've done and what your life is, you can be accepted and supported," she said.
"The message I believe we have in Jesus is truly the answer," said Pavola, "but sometimes you have to get through another need first before they'll even hear that message."
Townsend likened some outreach to "surrogate parenting."
At Living Faith Ministries, youth pastor Rev. Helen Utegaard said she has firsthand experience with the life-changing Christian message. She credited her faith with helping her overcome drug and alcohol problems two decades ago. She said sometimes youths bring in serious problems, including sexual and physical abuse. The church refers them to agencies that can help and tries to bring spiritual healing.
"They need a touch from heaven, a touch from God," she said.
Being relevant to Generation Y also means tackling tough issues, such as violence, racism and sexuality.
"They're not feel-good issues," Ringdahl Miller said. "Those are the issues that kids are bringing to church with them, and if we don't face them, we're not facing the issues of youth in our church."
Churches are responding to this call. Youth ministers universally agreed on the importance of tackling these issues. Several, including Peace United, got involved in discussions of racism at Central High School.
More than ever, area churches are working together. Pavola, for instance, meets regularly with youth ministers throughout the area and coordinates one-time and recurring events across the community.
For junior high kids, a monthly night at Grand Slam Adventure World, the first Friday of every month, is an example. Though Pavola expected "maybe a couple hundred," 470 turned out for the first event.
An average of 100 show up at Y-Rock at the YMCA -- a Saturday night alternative for high schoolers.
Another Youth for Christ event scheduled for May -- Mud Fest -- had several youth pastors talking.
"One of my goals in coming on with Youth for Christ is to see unity," said Pavola, who pointed out that seeing churches get along inspires more confidence in them.
Ringdahl Miller said getting kids together encourages them to bring friends, and Utegaard noted she always encourages Living Faith kids to go to events around town.
The "fun" of these events highlights another trend: meeting kids where they live.
Townsend summed up the difficulties of being "cool": "I'm 41 years old," he said. "If I try to be hip, I'm going to gross everyone out."
However, churches are trying to speak the language of Generation Y, as shown by a proposed skate park at Hermantown Community Church, a game room at Living Faith and the rise of Christian music.
Several churches host Christian contemporary artists, and Ringdahl Miller said WNCB, a radio station featuring the music, is growing in popularity.
Though Townsend said he hasn't always been a big fan of the genre, some groups are winning him over. "Worship does need to speak to the people," he said. "If it doesn't, then it's not relevant."
Finally, churches are bridging the gap between generations, giving youths role models and responsibility and invigorating congregations, said Ringdahl Miller, who said at Peace United, kids were involved in all aspects of church life.
Reaching youths has its rewards for churches. Utegaard noted the high energy of church youths, and Townsend highlighted the new buzzword, "intergenerational."
"I kind of cringe when people say the kids are the future of the church," he said, "because they're actually the present. Kids bring life to any community they're in. They also need community right now, more than ever."
Many Northlanders working to recruit youths for the church noted the great needs of Generation Y and the huge love that is demanded. However, if the work of bringing and keeping kids in churches has changed, at least the rewards have not.
"It's a lot of work," said Ringdahl Miller. "This is not a 40-hour-a-week job, but it's totally worth it."

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