Guest commentary by Rocky Supinger
Flying from one mission trip directly to another this summer was going to be a challenge. The lack of daylight between the contingencies of international air travel and a group of teenagers awaiting their leader in Little Rock made the plan for this summer’s travel ambitious, if not unwise.
At least I’m off the hook for that decision now. All of the trips we had scheduled for this summer have been wiped off the calendar by the coronavirus.
My church doesn’t run any youth ministry programming in the summer except trips. For the past four summers we’ve steadily increased our reliance on them to provide youth with an immersive kind of service and learning experience that only happens when you leave home with a community of peers and leaders who worship and discern together. So, what do we do now? How do we replace the value that mission trips and youth camps contribute to the lives of our students?
We’ve come up with an answer that is limited, but flexible. Critically, we’re not trying to replace what we’d planned. That’s a dead end. Instead, we are responding to an opportunity, in the midst of crisis and loss, to grow as a community of disciples in a new way, for a new time. That means weekly youth groups on Zoom, which have been the norm since mid-March. But now we’re developing a summer-specific version of youth group — a cohort focused on narratives of waiting and loss, like Abraham and Sarah, Naomi and Jonah. It means at a bare minimum providing a virtual space for students to connect with one another and their youth leaders for faith formation, and space to process the way this pandemic is upending their lives.
It also means improving my pastoral outreach to youth individually, an element of my pre-pandemic ministry that suffered from a too-full schedule of church programs as well as from youth commitments to rigorous academics and competitive enrichment activities. Those activities are stalled now, too — which should create time to check in with youth one-on-one over the phone in a new way. I’m thinking of it as an opening for mentorship and discipleship.
That opening can fit more than one student at a time, possibly. A few weeks ago, a parent of one of our students lauded the weekly Zoom youth group that sprang up almost immediately after church activities were suspended, but he also noted that it’s not really where his kid is at. He wondered if there couldn’t be some way to digitally convene a few students around a shared interest, like music or movies, and to structure ministry for them. His suggestion was still rattling around my head last weekend when I heard from a student that the Youth Theology Institute she’d planned to attend at Monmouth College was canceled. I thought: Could we do a theology reading group with youth?
Oh, and those mission trips aren’t completely off the table. Our youth will participate in a first-of-its-kind virtual mission experience piloted by Urban Youth Mission. UYM is a ministry of our congregation, Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, that welcomes youth groups from across the country for a week-long experience of immersive service in the city, and – like everything else – it can’t happen as planned this year. Instead, it will run four weeks of a three-day program focused on housing and hunger in light of COVID-19. It will feature keynotes by frontline leaders on these issues in the city, worship and biblical meditations, and reflection on students’ own contexts with their own church leaders. And it’ll all be on Zoom.
It bears repeating that these are new initiatives more than they are accommodations to extraordinary circumstances. I hope we learn how to experiment this summer, so that once conditions return to something more like what we’re used to, we will have options for future ministry that might otherwise have been completely untried. Maybe a weekly Zoom youth group has staying power even after it’s the only option. Maybe a regular calling ministry to youth beats Instagram.
One more thing we’ll be doing this summer: planning for fall. The fall calendar we started drafting in February is all the way at the bottom of the recycle bin by now, and a new one is called for. Or two. Or three. Summertime planning for fall and winter needs contingencies more than ever now. That means a September calendar constrained in much the same way as we are today, as well as a version that looks more like September 2019, as well as some combination of conditions. Envisioning multiple versions of plans is as much a marker of this “new normal” as forgetting to unmute your microphone.
The youth and parents in our ministries are enduring a generational trauma that is upending their lives in ways that range from the inconvenient to the devastating. These next few months of ministry with them can offer the presence and the love of God in ways uniquely demanded by this set of circumstances. It is the very kind of thing youth ministry is called upon – and equipped by the Spirit – to provide.
Rocky Supinger is the associate pastor for youth ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at yorocko.com.