As we get ready to celebrate the beginning of a new year, I am excited to release our goals and calendar for the next year of Saugatuck’s Christian Education and Youth Ministries. You can download the full calendar here: 2014_Calendar.pdf
Below is the introductory article included in the first few pages of the calendar, giving you a sense of where my goals and plans for the year ahead are coming from. I’m really looking forward to the year ahead, hope you will be, too!
God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(1 Kings 19:11-13, New Revised Standard Version)
Elijah was on the run. Why, I don’t really understand. He had quite literally just finished calling down fire from heaven as part of a dramatic proof that God was alive and at work in the midst of the nation of Israel. But, as if he didn’t understand the power God had just demonstrated, he took off on the run at the first sign of trouble. When God finds him, he is hiding in the desert on Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, also known as the mountain where God gave Israel the law and established a covenant with them right after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt through another massive display of God’s power we refer to as “The Plagues.” Elijah probably couldn’t have picked a more ironic place to run and hide!
Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, God puts that same power on display once again for Elijah, giving him one more reminder of just who the God we serve is. Having already asked Elijah once why he was hiding, and getting some sob story about being the only prophet left and having to flee for his life, God says to Elijah: “Go stand on my mountain and watch what I can do.” Presumably, with that instruction, we are to understand that even if God is not in the hurricane or the earthquake or the fire, God is making them happen to prove his point and remind Elijah just who he is dealing with.
But then the tone changes.
Before God actually speaks to Elijah again, we shift from big, cosmic, dramatic displays of divine power to a barely audible whisper, the sound of sheer silence. God reminds Elijah of the power that God possess. But then God approaches Elijah with tenderness and compassion, speaking in a still, small voice and asking Elijah simply “why are you here?” Finally, the story continues, in response to Elijah’s paralyzing sense of aloneness, God tells him that there is a whole community of prophets waiting for Elijah to join them if only he will have faith and seek them out.
God reminds Elijah of who God is, but then God speaks to Elijah’s deepest needs and gives him the gifts of community and compassion.
As I reflect on this story, I think it holds three unique challenges to us that I hope will become guiding principles for our ministry to Children and Youth in the year ahead.
First, this story challenges us to be aware of the many ways in which God is at work around us and in us. The wind and the earthquake and the fire which God sends to Elijah are all dramatic displays of God’s power. But alongside those “divine fireworks” is also the discovery of God in the still, small voice, in the sound of sheer silence, and in the invitation by God to ponder our own sense of meaning and purpose in the question, “why are you here?” God is present and at work in more ways than we realize, and this year we want to challenge our children, youth, and adults to become more aware of that presence in their lives. Our hope is that they will come to have a clearer sense of who God is and of who they are through our ministry together.
Second, this story challenges us to be connected with God and with other people. Elijah is afraid, and though he needs reminding of the power of God to overcome those fears, what he needs even more than that is a comforting voice to say “I am here with you.” Likewise, God longs to connect with each of us and for us to connect with one another, and this year we want to create a space in which our children, youth, and adults can learn to find those connection in their own lives. Our hope is that a sense of community and connection will become the centerpiece of our ministry to children and youth here at Saugatuck because we believe that it is through relationships that we are transformed into those who truly reflect the image of God that is inside each of us.
Finally, this story challenges us because Elijah’s fear is often our own fear. Having either forgotten or lost faith in the power of the God he serves, Elijah runs for his life in the face of adversity. As we at Saugatuck are undergoing a season of transition, fear is an understandable part of what we are all experiencing. But God challenges Elijah to break through that fear and step out in faith, to take a risk and experiment, to be creative in living out of faith, rather than confined by the expectations of others. God reminds Elijah that there are much more powerful things at work in this world than our fears and then challenges Elijah, and us, to set aside fear and boldly step out in faith! Likewise, it is our hope that our children, youth, and adults will find opportunities through our ministry to creatively live out their faith, breaking the mold of the world around them and engaging in the work of God in a way that authentically reflects who they are!
As we encourage spiritual awareness, spiritual and communal connectedness, and faith-filled creativity in our young people, we want this year to put an especial emphasis on “communal connectedness.” The first line of the Saugatuck Church Vision Statement is that we are “A Community of Christ,” and so this year our goal as a Christian Education and Youth Ministry is to help our children, youth, and adults form relationships which will transform them into expressions of the image of God that is already inside them.
As I have observed the interactions of our youth with one another and with the adults of our church, I have been struck over and over again by the strength of the relationships that already exist here at Saugatuck. This is an asset that I think we need to bring to the front and center of our ministry, and so for the year 2014 we are going to put our emphasis on cultivating relationships, both between our young people and God, our young people and one another, and our young people and other members of our church community.
In the last half-century, our society has undergone enormous changes. Today, regular church attendance is half of what it was thirty years ago, even in places like the “Bible Belt” of the Deep South. In many communities throughout New England today, it is not uncommon for less than ten percent of the population to even claim to regularly attend church! And these trends are especially true among young people: there are more people in the “millennial” generation of today’s youth who profess no religious affiliation at all than in any other generation throughout American history.
It seems that young people today have been conditioned by our culture to view religion as something that is not important for their lives and to see the church as a place where they are unwelcome. And in the midst of a climate that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on young people from a very early age to “succeed” and “perform,” the challenge for us as a church becomes finding ways to meaningfully connect with young people, attempting to counter both of those perspectives, without becoming just another “thing” competing for their time and attention. The key to succeeding in this, I believe, is through an intentional emphasis on relationships and community.
I want to suggest that the best thing for our youth, and for our church, is a change in emphasis from hoping young people will decide to come to us, and instead focusing on our going to them and building relationships with them where they are.
And, I want to suggest, the best thing for our children, and for our church, is a change in emphasis from “church school” being something that happens away from most of the congregation and instead focusing on inviting our children from an early age to be connected with the whole of our church community.
If we go way, way back in the church’s history, this kind of thinking starts to look familiar. The Book of Acts in the Bible is full of stories of the Apostles doing ministry not by waiting on people to come to them but by showing up in the market places, hanging out in the local meeting spots, and building connections through which they could tell others about the thing that inspired them most: how God had made a way for a new kind of community to exist, one that wasn’t based on our achievements or our net worth but instead based on the fact that we are all inherently reflections of the image of God. And the whole New Testament is full of descriptions of that community, the church, which compare us to a family, describing every member as a “child of God.” So what if we made those New Testament models our model in the year ahead? What if we made intergenerational relationships and meeting young people where they are the centerpieces of our ministry here at Suagatuck?
Doing just that is what I want to experiment with in the year ahead. That experiment is going to take a variety of forms. For the next year, the primary emphasis of our ministry is going to be building relationships between our adult members and our children and youth which value them not for showing up to be part of the crowd but simply for being, full stop. No pressure to perform, no expectations that they must attend everything, we commit to being there for them simply because they are a child of God, made in God’s image, and worthy of all the love and support we can give.
This way of doing ministry, this experiment, fits perfectly, I believe, with our goals. When we encourage students to become more aware of God in their lives and shape their own sense of purpose, we are valuing them for who they are, not asking them to conform to our expectations. When we encourage students to become more connected with God and one another, we are asking them to form a faith that is real to them throughout the week, not just on Sunday morning. When we encourage students to be creative in living out their faith, we are challenging them to make their faith their own, not to duplicate the faith we hold. And for any of those things to happen, we have to have the credibility of a real relationship with our young people. We have to invest time in their lives rather than simply asking them to invest time in our programming.
Putting this way of ministering to our young people into practice is going to be both a challenge and an adventure. I hope you will join me on the way!
Grace and Peace,
– – – – – –
Alexander P. Marshall
Associate Pastor For Youth and Children’s Ministries
Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC (Open and Affirming)