Engaging the future congregation
SUMMIT COUNTY – At first glance, it may appear that Brian Moon’s life revolves solely around the ski industry.But what people can’t see is Moon’s dedication to serving as the youth leader for One Community Church. The 25-year-old Frisco resident stays in tune with Summit County’s active youth by traveling nationwide to compete in slopestyle and superpipe telemark events and working full time as a production manager for a snowboard and telemark binding company. In between athletics, he and his wife, Lisa, try to buck the trend of poor youth attendance in Summit County churches by leading a group of 20 to 30 middle and high school students in One Community Church’s youth group.”It’s all about helping kids take ownership for their faith in Jesus Christ,” Moon said. “It is theirs, 100 percent. It’s not what they do because mom and dad say so. It’s the core of who they are as Christ followers.”Teens gather at the couple’s apartment clubhouse to discuss issues on their minds, to learn about the significance of the Bible or to have a pool party.”We try to create an environment that kids want to be in,” Moon said. “If kids want to be there, then they’ll invite their friends. It’s a place to be themselves, a place to interact with their peers in a safe environment where they won’t be judged, criticized or treated disrespectfully.”Moon’s not alone in his attempt to provide a fun environment for kids. Many local churches set goals of capturing Summit County youths’ attention because of low church participation in the 18 to 30 age group.”I don’t think people come (to Summit County) – especially in that age category – to think about their spiritual lives,” said Mark Hill, assistant pastor and director of youth and family services at Dillon Community Church. “They come here to enjoy the hedonistic world we created here. They don’t go to church.”About four years ago, Hill tried holding services on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights as opposed to the traditional Sunday evening to attract more young people. The church also provided food and played music to create a “coffee shop atmosphere” for two years, but nobody came.”Compared to the numbers (of 18- to 30-year-olds) in the rest of the county, as far as demographics go, we have virtually nobody here,” Hill said.According to the 2000 Census statistics, 20- to 40-year-olds make up the bulk of Summit County’s population, but according to religious leaders, young people aren’t filling pews.
Nevertheless, Hill said attracting more single, 20-somethings is not a top priority for the church because he accepts the reality of low youth participation in Summit County.Instead, he has designed a curriculum to encourage teenagers to continue worshiping into their 20s and beyond.For starters, he’s built a successful music program, where 16 teenagers play instruments at the adult worship on a monthly basis.”It’s very intentional on my part,” Hill said. “If they have a tangible skill that’s useful in a church context, they’re more likely to leave and re-engage in a church context.”Moon focuses on instilling values and giving kids tools to maintain their faith through life’s ups and downs.”We’re teaching kids where to find the answers to the big questions, to know what’s important, how to walk through life and weigh things and sift through the moral dilemmas they will face,” Moon said.”We want the students to look at Jesus as an example of how to live, love and worship. It is about being rather than doing.”All the while, he strives to make meetings culturally relevant and entertaining so kids keep coming back.”Our hope is that their questions are being answered, that it’s comfortable and fun,” he said.His approach is working for Leah Rybak, a 16-year-old sophomore at Summit High School.A friend introduced her to Moon’s group last year.
Rybak said before she began participating in youth group, she had been drinking, partying and “not making the right choices.””Getting involved in the church definitely strayed me from all of that. The people around me are such good influences, and hanging out with them has kept me away from all the mistakes I made last year,” Rybak said.Now, she said she feels like she’s part of a new family, a close-knit group of friends who have inspired her to change the way she lives.”There’s so many amazing people. (Youth group) is just a great atmosphere,” Rybak said. “I feel so comfortable there, and people accept you for who you are.”
But, finding teenagers with Rybaks eagerness isnt a simple task for all church leaders.Father John Kauffman is building a youth group from scratch at St. Marys Catholic Church.He took over the parish about a year and a half ago and said historically youth havent received much priority in the countys Catholic community.The previous pastor didnt keep up with the growth of the parish, and it got big enough to start having a viable group and nothing happened, Kauffman said. About three months ago, Kauffman started a weekly meeting of middle and high school students, but only six to eight kids regularly attend.Recently, he hired a consultant to come in for one year and research what kids want out of a group.The consultant, who has 30 years experience in working with youth, will help Kauffman hire a full-time youth leader.
Not every local church has a thriving youth group, or even needs one.Synagogue at the Summit has about 10 kids who regularly attend its services, said president Heidi Dickstein.Members considered forming a youth group but couldnt find enough parents or kids who could commit regularly. But even without a group, teens consider it an honor to remain involved in services. They often lead such celebrations as Yom Kippur or Passover seder because they usually have the best Hebrew, Dickstein said.The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS, relies almost solely on parents to instill aspiration to remain true to the church, said Bishop Todd Hill of the Frisco ward.Helaman Salas, 14, grew up in the LDS church.It helps me realize how to be a better person and how to treat other people. Its good for me, Salas said.He has gone through two rites of passages and looks forward to going on a mission when he is 18 to teach the gospel to others.The LDS church keeps 20-somethings active in the church by assigning them to lead Sunday school. Salas intends to teach his faith to his future children.Most church leaders agree parents are often the deciding factor in whether kids remain faithful to their religion.I have some kids whose parents arent engaged in faith, Mark Hill said. In all reality, those kids are less likely to continue down a path of faith if their parents havent.
Kauffman says most of his kids have expressed interest in a youth group that emulates Summit County Youth (SCY).SCY has been in the county for about 30 years and has the highest number of regular participants of any youth group in the area.Its a nondenominational group with separate meetings for elementary, middle and high school students.The groups focus on entertainment, such as relay games for the younger kids, or studying the message from a television sitcom or music video for the older groups.Director Anne Gallagher credits a lot of SCYs popularity to the social aspects, but also thinks it stems from the groups nonthreatening approach to Bible study.We never say you have to choose Jesus over something else, she said. We leave the choice up to (the kids).Although Kauffman said he recognizes the need to provide activities that will attract kids, hes more interested in starting a program thats effective for the participants. Im not put off by small numbers, he said. If people are excited and active, thats fine with me. I dont have to see hundreds of people to see that theres success.Regardless of the approach, most Summit County church leaders place a strong emphasis on their youth groups, with one basic understanding in common.Youth are the future, and if were not committed to and heavily invested in kids, then what do we have? asked Moon.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or at email@example.com
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