Youth ministries learn to slow down during pandemic
A few years have passed since my time in the…
Normally, organizing a youth rally would be no big deal.
Adam England would choose a theme. Pick a speaker. Invite area churches.
But the details become much more complicated in a pandemic.
While the COVID-19 lockdown prompted the cancellation of last year’s event, England believes the 2021 gathering can proceed responsibly.
But even as he strives to make Springfest as safe as possible, fellow youth ministers voice concerns about bringing their groups.
“I’m like, ‘Surely these guys are going to be excited about this,’” said England, the Westside church’s youth and family minister since September. “And I’m literally going down the list, and all of them are like, ‘Yeah, I don’t see how I’m going to bring a group.’ Or, ‘My parents are super strict, and there’s just no way.’”
Oh, the ministers do their best to encourage him.
Don’t give up, they tell him.
“I love the idea of what he’s trying to do, and I think it’s important,” said Aaron Stevens, youth and involvement minister for the Mission Viejo Church of Christ, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
But Bakersfield is a four-hour drive from Mission Viejo, factoring in restroom stops and L.A. traffic, Stevens said. That’s an easy trip in an ordinary time. This isn’t one.
Because of COVID-19, the teens couldn’t ride together in a church van, he said. Individual parents would need to drive them.
Moreover, local host families couldn’t keep groups of visiting teens like they typically do. Each student would require a separate hotel room.
“It just wasn’t realistic for us to do that,” Stevens said.
For more than 40 years, Jeff Walling has traveled all over the U.S., preaching and teaching at youth conferences.
But amid the pandemic, his usually busy travel schedule has come to a standstill.
“I’ve had TSA withdrawal,” he joked, referring to the often invasive passenger screening done by the Transportation Security Administration.
Walling serves as director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. On one of his few speaking trips during the pandemic, he survived a COVID-19 near miss.
A person who handed him the microphone at an outdoor assembly of socially distanced teens tested positive for the virus.
“There’s a two-pronged challenge here,” Walling said of organizing youth events while COVID-19 remains a concern. “On the one hand, teens are the least likely, it seems, to have major problems with COVID.
“But teens are also the ones who will take it home to Grandma and Grandpa,” he added. “Youth ministries have wrestled not only with student safety but with the safety of families.”
Until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California had prohibited indoor church services during the pandemic.
In a recent 6-3 decision, justices overturned that ban but said the state may limit attendance to 25 percent of a building’s capacity and restrict singing. Singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the disease.
“Walking the line between those who have severe concerns about the virus and will do anything and everything to avoid it and those who believe it is media fear tactics and political manipulation is exhausting,” England said. “Factor in that many young people are worn out with their parents’ ideologies and just want to be together, and it’s a sad time for youth ministries in a lot of ways.”
Juggling the competing demands, England has developed a detailed plan for Springfest, which is scheduled for March 20-21.
He’ll rent an outdoor stage. He’ll set up chairs 6 feet apart. He’ll place directional arrows on the ground to keep groups from crisscrossing.
He’ll require everyone to wear a mask, even though some people — especially in Bakersfield, a conservative stronghold in predominantly liberal California — object to them.
“I’ve already talked to the security team and said, ‘If we have people that just flat-out refuse to wear a mask, we’re going to kindly ask them to leave,’” he said.
Because COVID-19 likely will mean that family cars — not church vans — bring teens, he’s invited separate speakers just for parents.
“Since I have been in ministry, I have heard about and seen the struggle to get parents more involved,” said England, a 2013 Oklahoma Christian University graduate who previously served congregations in Texas and Colorado. “And now, that is the only way there will be any attendance at the event.”
For those who can’t — or won’t — attend in person, Springfest will livestream and record the sessions.
Perhaps, England suggests, youth groups could show Springfest on a big screen at their own church.
But Stevens isn’t so sure.
“The key to those events is the live aspect and the energy and the environment,” the Mission Viejo youth minister said. “It’s really about being there, being in the moment, worshiping together.”
Madalyn Riess, 15, won’t need to travel far to attend Springfest.
She’s a part of the youth group at Westside, where she has grown up.
Riess has attended school online for the past year and endured long stretches of not seeing church friends.
“It was hard because we’re all just stuck at home, and we’re doing exactly nothing but staring at a screen,” she said.
When the youth group came back together and began meeting in an outdoor courtyard, she was relieved.
“It was really great to know that I could go see my church family and just hang out and have fun and be OK, even though we’re going through something crazy,” she said. “We don’t know exactly when it’s going to end, but at least we can rely on each other and praise the Lord.”
“It was really great to know that I could go see my church family and just hang out and have fun and be OK, even though we’re going through something crazy.”
Gali Castro, 16, another Westside member, echoes her friend.
“I’m actually very grateful and blessed that Adam is letting us see our friends and just hear God’s word because there’s times in the pandemic where we go into a deep hole,” Castro said. “And by going to youth (group), we can at least get some praise and faith that everything is going to be fine.”
Despite challenges, Riess said the pandemic has strengthened her faith.
“God brought the reality down to me and was like, ‘Hey, you need to start focusing on family more,’” she said. “I’m really happy he did. It has helped me to know that my family is always there for me and … truly one of God’s biggest blessings in my life.”
But Castro has struggled with her faith. Amid COVID-19 fears, a heart attack claimed her father’s life. Grieving has brought ups and downs.
“I just keep on hearing — playing memories of him,” Castro said. “He would say, ‘Hey, don’t give up because God’s going to bless you in so many ways.’”
Both teens said they’re excited about Springfest, which they’ve enjoyed in the past.
“It’s just a ton of fun,” Riess said.
Related: Faith and COVID-19
Said Castro: “Last time, we went to houses near the church, and we would just go and ask for canned goods so we could donate it to the homeless shelter or those in need.”
This time, organizers won’t send teens door to door.
“On the West Coast, events are dropping off the calendar constantly. It was one of those scary things, you know: Am I really going to do this? Is it worth it? Does it make sense?”
But Cory Burns, director of the Adventures in Mission program at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, plans to bring a group. He’s helping develop pandemic-friendly service projects for Springfest.
Dusty Breeding, campus and youth minister for the University Church of Christ in Malibu, will keynote the teen event. Walling and Dudley Chancey, a youth ministry professor at Oklahoma Christian, will speak to the parents.
How many teens outside of England’s own youth group might show up? He has no idea.
“On the West Coast, events are dropping off the calendar constantly,” he said. “It was one of those scary things, you know: Am I really going to do this? Is it worth it? Does it make sense?
“And of course, you hear voices on every side. But I was like, if there’s a way I can be COVID-appropriate and put everything I have into this event — if only two people show up, I’ll praise God because he’s brought us these people.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.