“My heart was filled with joy.”
“I realized I don’t have to try and measure up anymore.”
“I met God in the Bible like never before.”
Hearing student testimonies is a highlight of any youth pastor’s year. They confirm that the ministry is fulfilling its purpose: by God’s grace working through hours and hours of prayer, teaching, worship, and fellowship—students are actually meeting the Lord! But what made hearing these particular testimonies so special was that they had almost nothing to do our youth ministry. They didn’t come after a winter retreat or a mission trip or youth conference—they came after Holy Week where students worshiped the crucified and risen Lord in a congregational setting with no youth-specific elements. I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited that our ministry is on the right path.
Without a doubt, the clearest and most troubling criticism of youth group is simply, it doesn’t work. As students graduate from high school, they also graduate from the church. Many of the students who are only engaged in youth ministry will leave the church during college. But I’m confident that our students will buck the trend because they’re not just connected to youth group, but they’re also deeply connected to the larger church.
This year, I watched Holy Week through the eyes of my students. Holy Week is a big deal at Church of the Resurrection. Good Friday service turns into a healing prayer service that lasts over three hours and students process to a full-size cross with their families to kneel, pray, and weep. On Holy Saturday, the Great Vigil of Easter begins with two hours of dramatic presentations of selected vigil readings through theater, dance, and even hip-hop. Over thirty students performed in these dramatic retellings alongside adults from the congregation. The Vigil continues all-night with a different preacher and worship band leading each hour’s reading. For the second year, we had a youth hour led entirely by high school students. It is a powerful experience to see the next generation stepping into the good works which God has prepared for them to do (Eph 2:10). Finally, the Easter sunrise service has every seat filled. When the acclamation goes out—Christ is Risen!—students, children, adults, and even clergy pour out of their seats to sing and dance in the aisles.
“The pastoral itch to be where the action is should be resisted,” says Eugene Peterson. This is true for youth ministry—and especially for Anglican youth ministry. The real “action” is where God’s presence meets the congregation gathered as one. It’s where the sacraments are received after hearing the Word preached. My youth ministry is essential, but only as a complement to Sunday mornings.
Two Wednesdays after Holy Week (because that kind of pilgrimage requires a week to recover!), our students gathered for a special “Easter Feaster” party. We hung brightly colored streamers, served snacks, and set up crock pots filled with nacho cheese and hot fudge for dipping. Why the festivity? Because it’s Easter and Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia! But we also gathered to worship and share testimonies. Student small groups had no trouble coming up with words to describe their experiences during Holy Week. When I asked them to be brave and share with everyone using a microphone, one after another offered beautiful testimonies before their peers. This is a picture of what I’m talking about—our youth ministry complemented the work of the larger church by giving students a place to process their spiritual experiences with Christian friends and caring adults. This partnership between Sunday morning and Wednesday night gives me confidence that our students are developing a relationship with Jesus and his Church that will last a lifetime.
By Will Chester, Youth Pastor Church of the Resurrection, Wheaton, IL