By Ansley Brackin
Small churches have a lot of good qualities. The congregations are often family-like with an “everybody knows everybody” atmosphere. However, the lack of youth in small churches can pose a problem, so constant that a collection of small United Methodist churches in Smyrna are working together to solve this common issue within their community.
Rev. Larisa Parker of Faith UMC became inspired by her sister’s church, Willow Glen UMC in San Jose, after learning how they combined with multiple small United Methodist churches in the area to form one large youth group. This collaboration eventually boosted the youth activity from 8 youth to 200.
For Parker’s youth of around 6, this youth co-op plan sounded like a great experiment. The pastors of Smyrna’s UM churches already support each other comradely, and Parker was eager to get her friends and fellow church leaders involved to collaborate in improving their youth together.
Sarah Lyons, Director of Children's and Youth Ministries at Smyrna’s Cumberland UMC, spent a large amount of time praying for the perfect solution to the same struggle within her ministry. When Faith UMC’s pastor called her regarding a Joint Youth Ministry idea, many doors of new opportunities opened for the youth of her church, as well as Faith UMC, Tillman UMC, and Vinings UMC.
“It can be incredibly difficult to make plans for a handful of youth when on any given Sunday we are competing with sports, homework, and other family commitments. If just one family has conflicting plans and does not show up, we are faced with the dilemma of rescheduling or worse yet, canceling. That doesn't send a very good message to the few that remain that they are valued and respected within our church families,” explains Lyons.
During the first meeting between Rev. Dawn Britt of Tillman, Rev. Julie Schendel of Vinings, along with Lyons and Parker, each church brought in a piece of the puzzle. Cumberland has the most spacious facility for meeting and will serve as Vinings’ host space during their turn at leadership. Each church’s host period is around 2 months, providing the youth with variety and the pastors with a lighter load.
Despite their lack in parking space, Vinings has a unique fellowship hall and their pastor, Schendel, has a huge heart for travel. Her passion will be a useful asset to the mission connections that Tillman brings to the table. The joint ministry already has plans of taking a trip to Bahamas Methodist Habitat for a mission. Transportation is provided by Faith’s bus, which they have recently taken together to the Celebrate Freedom concert, hosted by The Fish.
With four churches to represent, the youth have access to many activities to participate in. They will aid one church in selling pumpkins and have plans to help at each church’s Vacation Bible School. This will greatly improve the interest of parents new to the community. “Each church can advertise that they have a youth program, even if there are currently no youth attending that church,” says Parker.
The group, which started meeting August 18, already has around 12 youth, and an impressive amount of parent involvement. Those with kids that are not yet considered to be “youth-aged” are already looking forward to involving them in the ministry. Parker and her team is thrilled by the faith that the congregations have in this new commitment. Currently, Lyons and Schendel are the only leaders with youth experience, but all are enjoying the learning process and hope to grow the group enough to hire a youth director.
Though still in the beginning stages of development, the strengths of each church have proven that there is tremendous potential. Creating this team has helped ease the stress of cost, responsibility, and providing supervision. Planning for trips and outings is now possible. They can also create events that will result in a greater success and wider variety in turn-out. They have created a strategy that can be used by other communities with similar tribulations in their youth ministry.
Their Joint Youth Ministry, and those like it, represents the togetherness that churches can thrive off of together. “Youth don’t care where they go,” says Parker. “They are open to meeting new people and getting involved”. Lyons understands the fear of losing youth by reaching out to another church for help, but the focus of action for any youth ministry should be on raising “productive and healthy servants” for the Glory of God.
“I really do believe that this may be a viable model for other small churches,” Lyons says. “We don't have to be a mega church to do have an awesome youth group, just be a church devoted to awesome youth.” The leaders of this partnership want to motivate other small churches to join together for the good of their youth.
The Joint Youth Ministry is meeting at Faith UMC now through October on Sundays, 5:30pm-7pm. The evenings consist of an ice breaker game and then dinner. Each youth is asked to bring 2 dollars to eat. After dinner there is a short lesson. This fellowship opportunity is open to students in grades 6th-12th. Contact Larisa Parker for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org