I was working at a church (assisting the youth pastor) that had a high percentage of “Christians that didn’t want to get dirty”. The church was built in an lower income neighborhood intentionally in order to be able to help the community. But over the years it had become a church where people from outside the community came to worship but didn’t actually do much ministry in the community. At the end of this one school year the youth group was down to 1-3 students depending on the week. After several weeks of praying (before school ended), we did what the parents disliked…
We cancelled youth group for the summer while we re-evaluated the situation.
My friend had been hired as the youth pastor and had been there for about 9 months and wasn’t able to get much help from parents and the 3 kids that did come, weren’t from the community so asking them to invite there friends wouldn’t have served the original goal of the church – to help the people in the community where the church was built.
Here’s what we did…
Jeff and I pulled our money together and spend a couple hundred dollars on sports equipment- Frisbees, Kickballs, Bases, Nurf Footballs… stuff like that. Then we headed down to the ball field in the middle of the community. The field was poorly maintained because the city didn’t even care about this community enough to mow the field. The fences were rusty, the benches that were left were broken, there was barely a dirt trail through the overgrown grass that made out a baseline for the diamond.
For the 10 weeks of summer we were there every Friday from 1pm until 5pm.
We would play games with any kids that happened to pass by. On the first week – no one showed up and people were leary of the two guys sitting on a bench with a bunch of sports equipment spread around on the ground. The second week we had a 1 kid show up. The third week we a small handful of kids show up. By the 4th week we had about a dozen “regulars”. Occasionally a parent would come and join us or question us but after a while they were used to us.
On the 8th week, as we were playing games a huge mob of kids started across the field towards us from the far end. They were older kids, some walking, some riding bikes, and many of them were carrying bats or sticks. I thought, “This was it. We had unintentionally ‘moved in’ on someone’s turf and they were here to teach us a lesson.”
About the time some of the kids reached the second base area I could hear some of the kids shouting phrases like, “Can we join you?”, or “Hey, we wanna play, too!”
We had so many kids there we had to run 3-4 different games on the field at the same time just to include everyone. It was great, and tough at the same time. There was still only two of us running things and kids wanted us to play what ever they were playing which is a difficult when you have to run more games than you have leaders for.
At the end of the 10 weeks we sat down with all the kids as we were packing up the sports equipment. We told the kids this would be the last week we would be showing up since school started next week. There was a lot of grumblings and requests for us to show up on Saturday or Sundays.
For the entire summer we had never told the kids we were youth pastors, we had never mentioned God, never read a single Bible verse or even said a single prayer. We just hung out with them in their community. So you can image that our next announcement to them came as a shock…
“We’re youth pastors down the street. While we’re not going to be here on Fridays anymore we will have Youth Group on Tuesday nights. We’ll play some games, we’ll eat some food, and we’ll have a Bible lesson. Every Tuesday – everyone’s invited!“
We announced to the church we were re-starting youth group in September and on our first night of youth group we had around 60 students!
They were smelly, they were noisy, some of them said in-appropriate comments, most of them used foul language, one kid even brought a gun. But they were all ours to teach the good news of Jesus Christ to. We lost two “church” families who said that church should be safe and their kids no longer felt safe at youth group.
It was a safe place (the student the brought the gun was asked to leave it at home for future youth group events and he did). It was a safe place for the community kids to hang out for a couple hours a week. No one was going to harass them, beat them, call them stupid, or put them down in any other way.
That was about 20 years ago.
Today many of the students went on and graduated from college – which is generally unheard of for that community. And best of all – some of those students are now helping the church, staying in the community, and reaching out to the next generation of kids.
Brian Bollinger has been in youth ministry since 1987. He has served in only 2 churches during that time, and is now getting ready to start a new youth group from scratch at a small local church. In his spare time, he likes building model trains and designing awesome games (Wild East Game Company).