by Julie Rigano, Director of Family Ministry
I grew up at church. We went every Sunday. If I had a sleepover at a friend’s house on Saturday night, I was picked up early on Sunday for church. I resented it a little when I was young, but I cherish those memories now. Some of my earliest memories are of swinging on the monkey bars behind the sanctuary or getting a hug from the elders of the church sitting on the porch as we walked in before the service. Before I knew anything about what I believed, I knew two things about church—the people there cared about me, and we had fun together.
This sense of community only solidified for me as I got older—and playing dress up for the Christmas pageant, going to Saturday night folk concerts, or even just playing in childcare with my peers during annual meetings. I deeply felt the community of the church before I could articulate how crucial that community was for my spirituality. It’s why sometimes my heart breaks for our middle school and high school youth who lost these foundational times at church during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Recently, I have been hearing from my colleagues that having friends at church is one of the biggest factors in keeping youth attending church after they have completed Our Whole Lives and Coming of Age classes. The time to build these connections and friendships before eighth grade is the exact time that our middle school and high school youth were forced into Zoom school and online socialization. This is one of the reasons we are morphing our middle school programming into a Junior Youth Group and prioritizing community building. Neighboring Faiths, a program missed by many of our high school youth, will be a part of our high school programming in upcoming years. Before we can delve deeper, we need to first remember that we are a community that cares for one another and has fun together.
When I think about creating a sustainable youth group, I am not only thinking of our middle school and high school youth. Of course, I want to create a good experience for them; I am having a blast getting to know them. Our high school youth feel a deep connection to this church, are eager to assist in this year’s Christmas pageant and to lead a Super Sunday activity for the younger kids. And our middle school youth are eager to learn and explore. They ask questions so thoughtfully; they exude gratitude for your presence to their curiosity.
When I am thinking about creating a sustainable youth group, I am also thinking about the elementary school kids. Are they making connections outside of Sunday morning? Do they like playing together before and after worship? Do we have opportunities for our families to be social together outside of Sunday morning? How are we building a multigenerational community in our congregation that learns from the wisdom in each of us?