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On this Sunday dedicated to our church’s children and youth, as well as their families and the people who work with them, I thought I might take a few minutes to think out loud about the answers to a couple of questions that seem especially pertinent today: 1) What is the reason for youth and family ministry, and 2) what does youth and family ministry look like here at First Church? I will be brief in my remarks, but if you will allow me to begin with a personal note.
A couple weekends ago, I was in Philadelphia at the wedding of my nephew Warren. He’s 30 years old and the first of his generation on my side of the family to get married. I have three daughters who will probably do the same over the next several years . . . not that I’m pushing . . . . but I am ready for grand kids, whenever that happens . . . just saying. Anyway, the point is that it seems like just yesterday that my daughters and nieces and nephews were the ages of the kids I work with here at First Church in Sunday School and Youth Group. The expression “They grow up so fast” is just plain true. It’s not that time moves any faster during the years our kids are growing up; rather, it’s the realization that we only have so much time with our children before they aren’t children any more. What will we teach them in that time? And what will they teach us?
I’ve worked with kids in one form or another for most of my adult life – at-risk kids in halfway houses and residential facilities, kids in public schools, and kids in church programs, not to mention raising my own kids with the best “co-worker” I’ve ever had – that’d be my wife Sara. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had working with other adults who love kids has been in this church – the teachers, teacher assistants, nursey providers, youth group helpers, parents, grandparents and guardians; and all of you who get involved in so many different ways with our kids. And let’s be clear, the children of First Church, all of them, are our children, whether they were born into our own household or not. We are their extended family, a family formed of faith journeyers, some of us with many miles along the road, and others just beginning their journey.
I’m always asking myself what is important that these kids are learning, spiritually and socially, as they venture forth, with most of their life still ahead of them, these vibrant young souls who are our responsibility in the present, and our hope for the future.
One day they will be grown up, and perhaps get married and raise their own children. How will we have gone about setting a good example for them to follow and to build upon? What will we have taught them? What are the values that have been important to us, and that will be important to them, and to all generations? Do such values exist? I think they do, and I think a list of the most important things to teach our children might go something like this:
– You are loved by God, exactly as you are. There is nothing you can do to lose God’s love, and there is nothing that will make your life better than feeling the presence of God’s love in it.
– You are empowered by God and others who love you to be the best person you can be. Use that power.
– Ask how you might use your life to serve others. Pray for guidance and be prepared to follow your call.
– Remember to do these things:
– Be kind, to everyone, because kindness will make you a better person and the world a better place.
– Forgive others for any wrongs they have done to you, because forgiveness will free them and will free you from forces that would otherwise hold you down.
– Be grateful for your life, for what you have, and for the earth, because gratitude will open you to receiving life’s greatest gifts.
There is more we could list, but this is a good start, as all of these things are found in the teachings of Jesus, or are things we learn from stories about how Jesus lived. They are the basis of Christianity and other religions as well. These are the things we need to teach our children. Good families do so every day, in their homes; and we do so here every Sunday and on other occasions in this church. They are the lessons our children learn in Sunday School with their classmates and teachers, and in Youth Group with their peers and mentors. They learn them when they interact with people at Not Bread Alone and on the Appalachia Service Project trip. They learn them when they hang out with us at the camp out or the family retreat. They learn these things at times when we are not even aware – from listening to our words, from watching how we treat others, from observing how we express our passions. They learn them from the ways we build them up, or give them a sense of self-respect, or are patient with them, or nurture their creativity, or feed their curiosity, or help them ask the right questions, or live with the questions no one can answer, or guide them to trust in something beyond themselves, or instill in them a sense of radical possibility for their futures.
In the passage from the Gospel of John read this morning, Jesus said, “I have lived with you, and I live with you still; and because I live, you also will live. You who keep my commandments love me, and you are loved by God. You know this, because the Spirit of Truth abides with you, and is in you.”
Here then are snapshots of what our ministry with our kids looks like in this church, as the Spirit of Truth makes known God’s loving presence in their lives, and ours, in all kinds of setting and circumstances, in ways that are sometimes profound and sometimes silly. Our ministry is . . .
When Alia Starkweather teaches kids to makes paper jelly fish at the family retreat
When Ellen Putnam and Mark Dean and Toby Bobbitt sign up to be chaperons on the ASP trip
When Denise Rainville drives miles to get her kids to a youth group meeting, just before heading off to a second job
When I witness a child apologizing to another child, of his own volition and in his own words, for an offense he has given
When Pastor Vicki sits down to talk with a teen contemplating church membership
When Lukas Becker takes aside a young child who needs a little extra attention during Sunday School
When Gabrielle Hardyn comes from campus to church on a Friday night to watch young children who want to help decorate the sanctuary for Advent
When Bridget Champlin discovers that playdough is the answer to engaging a distraught child in nursery
When Skyler Keiter comes in early on Easter morning to help hang balloons and hide eggs for the kids to find after church
When I compliment Sunday School children for pictures they’ve drawn depicting the beauty of God’s creation
When, at the Christmas Eve Service, young adults who used to go to Sunday School here themselves, become role models for younger kids – Ben Cooper by narrating the Unpageant; Andy and Amy Vernon-Jones, and Olivia and Eva Feyre Febonio by lighting the tall candles
When Ralph and Linda Faulkingham invite the youth group to come sledding on the monster hill behind their house
When Charlie Camp leads kids on a remote hike in the woods and stages a fake accident, so they learn how to carry out an injured person
When Ruthie Killough-Hill, Russ Vernon-Jones, ivy Tillman and Sara Barber-Just lead discussions with the youth group about issues of race or gender identity or human sexuality
When I thank a child for offering to let another child do something that I know she wanted to do herself
When Bob Stover gives kids important jobs to do in the soup kitchen
When Ron Williams stands covered with shaving cream from head to toe because he’s just completely immersed himself in an epic battle with youth group kids at a pool party
When Marie-Dominique invites youth group kids into her home to make quiches and cakes from scratch
When Jennifer Unkles takes Sunday Funday kids on a walk outside in search of nature’s treasures
When Sarah Marshall explores themes and ideas with kids during a Sermon Take Away
When Dorothy Cresswell, Lydia Vernon-Jones, Katie Tolles or Adam Ortiz come in early on a Sunday morning to lay out materials in the Hawley Room for a thoughtfully planned Sunday School lesson
When any one of you takes a moment during coffee hour, or at some other function, to talk with our children, showing interest in them or sharing something of yourself with them . . .
Our children learn the beauty of God’s loving presence in their lives in all these widely varied and sometimes unexpected ways, and this is just a handful of examples I could mention of people in this church doing so much to embody God’s love for the sake of our children.
When the apostle Paul was teaching the people of the early church about God’s loving presence in their lives, he put it this way: “In God we live and move and have our being.” We know that loving presence. We feel that loving presence. And we want our children to know and feel it. Because knowing and feeling God’s love makes all the difference. That is the reason for youth and family ministry at First Church. And, while some of us may have roles that are higher profile than others, each and every one of us plays a vital part in that ministry.
Thank you all for being such a good family for our children to grow up in, and to take the first steps of their spiritual journeys. Thank you for helping them to know and feel God’s love all around them. And remember, youth and family ministry happens here, in this church, because of all of us.