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Students attend Bible class outside with plenty of spaces between chairs at the Mission Viejo Church of Christ, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Inside Story
Photo provided by Aaron Stevens

Youth ministries learn to slow down during pandemic

'I don’t want to go back to the way things were,' one minister says.

A few years have passed since my time in the youth group at the old Midtown Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas.

Still, I have fond memories of singing around campfires and in living rooms and at worship on Sunday and Wednesday.

In the summer, we’d crowd into a church van each Tuesday and drive to the summer youth series. Along the way, we’d stop and enjoy a Coke or an ice cream cone.

I’m pretty sure we had a teen devotional at somebody’s house a different night of the week.

As I think back, I’m not sure how we found time for all that. After all, most of us had part-time jobs and extracurricular activities. Certainly, we had more free time in the summer, but I can’t imagine how the youth minister ever had a free moment.

Maybe he didn’t.

Fast-forward 35 years, and not a whole lot had changed — as far as I could tell — in how we did youth ministry in Churches of Christ.

Related: A youth rally in a pandemic? It’s not as simple as requiring masks and distancing

Then came the COVID-19 lockdown.

Suddenly, all of us — including always-busy youth ministries — were forced to slow down. 

At first, Travis Moore, youth minister for the Conejo Valley Church of Christ in Thousand Oaks, Calif., didn’t like it.

“I got into a depressed funk,” he said, recalling how he was forced to cancel activity after activity.

But months of reflection and reinvention of how he interacts with teens and their parents led him to a different conclusion.

“I don’t want to go back to the way things were,” Moore said. “I think we were overprogrammed before.”

Travis Moore

Travis Moore

No, he’s not saying that he wants his Los Angeles-area church’s Sunday assembly to be on YouTube — not in person — forever.

He’s not saying that he prefers Zoom Bible studies to face-to-face classes with his youth group. (Teens’ “Zoom fatigue” is real, he stresses.)

He’s not saying that service projects and summer camps and mission trips south of the U.S. border are bad. In fact, he’s eager to resume all of those things.

But he wants to give his teens and their families — and himself — time to breathe. 

“We were giving them things to do all the time but not necessarily having quality things come out of it,” he said. “I was just overworked and overscheduled.”

Drew Denman serves as youth minister for the Childress Church of Christ, a thriving congregation in a Texas cattle and cotton-farming hub, halfway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls.

“Childress is a small town, and everyone plays all the sports, so all the kids are used to just going and going and going all the time,” Denman said. “So we’ve followed suit.”

But after COVID-19, Denman sees a need for a different emphasis as the congregation resumes in-person Sunday morning Bible classes.

“We need to get back to the basics,” he said.

Drew Denman

Drew Denman

Those basics include Bible study, purposeful worship and relationship building.

“Community is crucial for our young people,” Denman said. “They are already being pulled in so many different directions. They desperately need that ‘home base’ to return to in a youth group. Something I knew but didn’t understand like I do now: Technology is good but will never fully satisfy the need.”

What will he do differently post-pandemic?

“Incorporate more leadership opportunities for teenagers,” Denman said. “Teenagers have a hard time feeling like they are a part of a church anyway, but especially when not meeting for months on end.

“The tricky part,” he added, “is how we involve boys and girls, inside and outside of the church service. After all, the church isn’t a building.”

Back in Southern California, Moore said he intends to enlist the help of Mom and Dad.

Before the pandemic, the Conejo Valley youth minister had not taken real steps to involve parents, he said.

COVID-19 changed that.

Related: Faith and COVID-19

“Lots of guys did that before,” Moore said. “I think I’m going to become one of those guys, really equipping parents to do a lot of ministry and teaching. I don’t think things are going to go back to the way they were before.”

In a time of severe anxiety for many teens, youth ministers have sent regular text messages to check in, organized drive-by celebrations and dropped off goodie bags.

A final note: Many of us have a tendency to devalue the role of youth ministers. Perhaps we think of them as “junior” ministers or teen cruise directors. 

Yet during this time of severe anxiety for many teens — stressed and lonely because of separation from friends and their church family — their youth ministers have sent regular text messages to check in, organized drive-by celebrations for milestones such as graduation and dropped off goodie bags at individual teens’ homes.

In the wake of COVID-19, let’s show youth ministers the support and respect they deserve and give them space and discretion to create meaningful relationships rather than fill a calendar. 

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: California church and covid Coronavirus covid Inside Story National teens Texas Top Stories Youth youth ministries

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