Rev. Michael Swartzentruber
Connected. That’s what we are. In our online world of social media and smart phones, the word “connected” has a distinctly digital resonance. We might immediately think of all the ways technology links us up to one another.
But this is only one angle of entry into our connectivity.
Recently, Middletown Christian Church took a long, hard look at our children and youth ministries. Few people would deny the important connection between ministries with children and youth. We all know that the faith formation of children profoundly influences the continued learning, serving, and faith expressions of youth. I hear youth workers lament the “poor biblical literacy” of their students due to mediocre or ineffective children’s ministries (misplaced blame, to be sure, but revealing with respect to the importance of child faith formation). And I hear youth ministers give “all praise and honor” to their incredible colleague in children’s ministry for engaging and preparing classrooms full of eager, energized students. In short, if children are vibrantly connected to the church, they are more likely to continue that connection as youth.
From this conventional starting place our teams decided to depict the connection between youth and children’s ministry. We created a “spiritual pathway” with chronological and symbolic markers. The pathway takes the viewer on a journey from birth to high school graduation, highlighting the most crucial aspects of our ministries, including both singular sanctuary celebrations (like a baby dedication) and recurring programs (like youth group). One half of the pathway presents those programs and events led by children’s ministry, the other half presents those led by youth ministry. Simple enough.
As we drew out our pathway and began making decisions about what to include, we realized we were missing some connectivity: namely, intentional efforts to transition students from children’s ministry to youth ministry. Out of this we launched a 6th grade retreat to connect new students with their Middle School youth leaders, to our youth ministry mission and vision, and to one another. In addition, we took a tour of the church and introduced the students (formally) to our youth facilities, talking about how it reflects who we are as a church and what we value.
After reviewing the spiritual pathway, we also noticed that there was a deeper level of connectivity present: namely, a connectivity to our church’s values and ministry strategy. At Middletown, we have articulated a very clear vision frame that includes a mission statement, core values, and a concise strategy for doing our mission and living our values. In other words, everything we choose to spend time, energy, and resources on should flow from our church’s vision frame. Children and youth ministries are important expressions of our whole church, not renegade silos doing our own (trendy or subversive) thing. We want our work to feed off of and enhance the ministry of the whole church. We are, in short, connected. So we used our church’s values along the pathway and the church’s strategy icons for the different events.
What developed from this was a visually powerful pathway connected to our whole church, but zoomed in on the life of a young person as they grow. Each event is an expression of our ministry strategy (worship, belong, serve, or give). This is not an exhaustive listing of our ministry work, but it is a concentrated dose of who we are. And each event or recurring program provides an entry point for new students and families to join us on the journey of faith formation. The spiritual pathway is given to all families at the beginning of every year and to new families as they learn about our ministry.
At the symbolic center of the pathway is our church logo depicting another form of connectivity: baptismal mentorship. Middletown connects every student who wants to be baptized with a mentor, someone who walks alongside them as they question, learn, and prepare for baptism. Following a multi-week guidebook, mentors and mentees study the bible, explore basic theology, worship, and volunteer together. In their connection to an adult, students expand their faith-connection to God—a God who re-connects their fragmented life and hooks them into the grand adventure of God’s mission.
This spiritual pathway is full of connections. Even though our team has finished the monumental task of putting it together, it remains an open picture, ripe for review, revision, and re-imagination. We are a connected people, and there is always more connecting we can do.
Rev. Michael Swartzentruber serves as Youth Minister at Middletown Christian Church in Louisville, KY. He will soon be moving to the Senior Pastor at South Elkhorn Christian Church in Lexington, KY.
He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and blogs at Wonderlust (divinitymusings.wordpress.com). He enjoys good coffee, playful spirituality, and has never been seen in the same room with batman.