Reaching today’s youth with back to the basics
By Lindsay Peyton
John Wesley UMC is rethinking youth ministry. The congregation, located north of Houston in Champion Forest, is reaching its youngest members in new ways – and walking with them through their faith journey.
Ministering to Gen Z often left Chris McCarthy scratching his head. Years ago, when he first started working with youth groups, he simply had to open the door and almost 100 kids would show up. Many were from the neighborhood, even if their parents had never attended church.
Later, when he returned to youth ministry, after spending a few years as a senior pastor, it seemed like almost everything had changed.
Youth group attendance had dropped. Children were too busy to make time for church – and their parents similarly had jam-packed schedules.
For McCarthy, who is passionate about making future disciples, it was clear that something had to give. And Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Marty Dunbar was on the same page.
“We’re always trying new things at the church,” Dunbar said. “We believe in ‘never failed to fail.’”
Dunbar was appointed to the church about six years ago and hired McCarthy a couple of years later as Director of Youth Ministry. They are cut from the same cloth, always asking, “How can we make it better?”
“You’ve got to know your audience,” McCarthy said. “And it’s very different.”
He began researching Gen Z, reading surveys and inhaling books. It became apparent that youth today are looking for a different experience at church.
“That generation is tired of all the flash and smoke,” he said. “They want you to be honest with them – and they want it done in a short amount of time.”
The Millennials were different, McCarthy explained. “They loved the show, and they loved the lights,” he said.
To appeal to a younger demographic, things had to change. “We’re kind of going back now to a more traditional setting,” McCarthy said. “We’re getting back to the basics of the Bible.”
He began brainstorming with Dunbar about a way to evolve youth ministry a couple of years ago. Then, the pandemic hit.
“During COVID, we couldn’t really do anything for a while,” McCarthy said. “The pandemic actually gave us time to really do some research. I stepped back.”
“We utilized the shutdown,” Dunbar added. “We needed time to explore more. We had a vision and dream. The shutdown us allowed us to formulate a plan – and then to launch.”
The duo began offering Q and A sessions with parents, explaining that youth ministry would be changing. In the summer, they made a Zoom announcement.
First McCarthy would be assuming a new role – Director of NextGen Ministries. Instead of having different individuals heading programs for different ages, he would create a cohesive ministry from crib to college.
“The goal was to have one person in charge of the whole thing,” Dunbar explained. “That brings a more overall cohesiveness to our ministry.”
And the ministry begins at birth. Before Baptism, McCarthy brings dinner to the parents and a prayer bear to the new infant, as well as a baby Bible and a book about being Godly parents.
“That’s our opportunity to let mom and dad know, ‘We’re here for you. We’re here to pray with you – and will be with you at the hard times,” McCarthy said.
John Wesley UMC also expanded the traditional rite of passage awarding Bibles to third-graders. “We want to help them learn how to use their Bible, instead of just having one on the shelf,” Dunbar said.
In addition, the church has changed confirmation from a year-long faith journey for 6th graders to a three-year commitment.
On each step of the way, empowering parents is essential, Dunbar said. He and his wife Jami began teaching the class, Parenting God’s Way, at 5 p.m. on Sundays. The course coincides with student worship, kids choir and bells. Together, the offerings for all ages make up “NextGen Nights.”
Parental involvement is integral. Parents receive material and resources to facilitate discussion at home. They are kept informed of what is being taught in church and can talk about the subjects whether around the dinner table or before a bedtime story.
Taking time to ensure adults can grow in their own faith is essential, Dunbar added. In the fall, John Wesley UMC launched Discipleship Pathway, a program that equips adults to disciple others. “We want to make disciples who can also make disciples,” Dunbar said.
Discipleship can sometimes get lost behind church programs and events, the pastor added. COVID has forced the congregation to take a magnifier to its offerings – and ensure the main thing is always still the main thing.
“Now that we’re back in the building, we have to remember why we are where we are,” McCarthy said. “We’re in a neighborhood. We need to love our neighbors.”
“And we’ve got to get back to being a place where parents and kids feel safe, a place they want to be and trust,” he added.
The next generation of church-goers is at stake, McCarthy explained. “We have to take the ones that God has placed in our hands and make the greatest disciples with the skills and tools we have,” he said.
And that means ensuring that children learn how to use their Bibles – and also not taking for granted that when they head to college that they will return to church. Instead proactive ministry is key.
“It’s important to get out there and explain how great Jesus is,” McCarthy said. “The good news is still the good news. We need a revival is what we need.”