“But what will we do when they turn into teenagers?”
We heard this question a few times during our first couple of years at Mountainside, sometimes with a laugh and sometimes with a tone of anxious seriousness.
No really, what will we do?
Mountainside’s approach to children’s formation through the Godly Play model raised a lot of questions about what it might look like to transition older kids into the next phase. That next phase was quickly approaching, but there was no “next phase” plan.
Responding with a youth-ministry-as-usual approach didn’t feel authentic to Mountainside’s values and how we hoped to live them out faithfully. So we gathered a couple of families together to share ideas, hopes, and fears about the coming adolescence of our children and our church’s response to them. This led to conversations with other co-conspirators who were energized by the idea of working with teenagers.
We determined early on that we would not create programs or structures that led to the isolation of young people from the rest of the body. Despite all of our fond memories of past youth group experiences, the typical response of segregating teenagers from the life of the congregation felt dissonant to Mountainside. As we talked with kids themselves, one of the common themes they shared was one of being known. They felt known within the community. They liked being called by name. They’d noticed that it was okay to be a kid and to be noisy sometimes, and felt accepted rather than judged or shamed by adults for those things. Adults were named as friends.
So rather than create a youth ministry program, we experimented with a rhythm—because, after all, we’re Mountainside. And, in the Mountainside way, we first created an “understanding document” born out of conversations with parents, kids, and church participants. Together we named and celebrated that Mountainside was moving into a season where there were both higher numbers of kids and a broader age disparity. Developmentally, older kids were beginning to ask new and different questions of God, scripture, and the world around them. Simultaneously, they were growing socially into new awareness of themselves and increasingly complex relationships all around them. They needed us to come alongside them as a community in new ways.
At Mountainside we say that parenting is both a shared vocation and a spiritual discipline. Carrying this vocation/discipline through adolescence we knew would be an important learning curve for our whole community. And so we started small, with the handful of kids in front of us, praying that our shared work as a body would be a faithful expression of formation for young people.
So what are we doing in this still very new season? Our experiment includes a rhythm that honors both the hope of keeping kids connected to the community and the need for age-appropriate formation. Two Sundays each month the students gather on their own with two adults and engage scripture and prayer together. We developed a liturgy building on Godly Play, and also following the liturgical year and the pattern of our worship gathering. One Sunday each month the young people join all-church worship for the entire service. The goal is to help integrate them into the worshiping life of the church, so it is not something unfamiliar or something “only for adults.” And finally, one Sunday a month the group either serves in the toddler room, serves out in the community, or serves global neighbors in some way. In this way we hope to help them see the ways faithful living calls us to reach outside ourselves to see and meet needs in our community and the world in the name of Jesus.
Mentoring relationships are another element of our rhythm, where each student is paired with an adult in the congregation. Mentors and students share meals, activities, and talk about the intersections of life and faith. Only a year into this, we’ve already seen some beautiful fruit from these relationships.
We’ve named our rhythm “Confirmation,” claiming an old tradition of the church where a season is set aside to explore, study, stretch, and eventually affirm that the faith inherited from parents and the community has now become the young person’s own journey. The use of a term like Confirmation helps us to not isolate kids in a specific age or grade period, and is connected with baptism and exploring faith.
This story is not finished—not even close! I am certain our approach and our rhythms will need to change as our kids grow older and our church grows in other ways. For now, we breathe an expectant “to be continued,” grateful to be on this pilgrimage together.