Regardless of age, members of the LCMS know the beauty of coming together as a whole for worship, prayer and fellowship around the altar. Each Sunday, the generations gather as one – brothers and sisters in Christ – to receive God’s gifts. But what about outside of Sunday – is there something to be gained when Lutherans of the same age spend time together?
Spoiler alert: The answer is yes, especially for the youth.
A long history
Youth ministry, specifically youth groups, is nothing new to the LCMS. The Walther League, for example, traces all the way back to 1893. For nearly 100 years, more than 5,000 Walther League groups were established, giving youth an opportunity to study the Bible together, engage in activities like roller-skating and bowling and even provide funds for overseas and domestic mercy work.
“Lutheran churches have a long history of youth ministry,” explained Julianna Shults, program manager for LCMS Youth Ministry’s Lutheran Young Adult Corps. “As a Synod focused heavily on education, it often makes a lot of sense to teach and gather children and teens by age group. The purpose of Walther League was not all that different than youth ministry today: strengthening faith and support of Christian life through worship, Christian education, service, recreation and fellowship.”
Of course, as times have changed, so has the focus of many families. Unfortunately, church is no longer the primary center of the lives of all Lutheran families and communities as sports, school activities and work compete for the time of young people. Despite the shift in culture, youth groups continue to flourish in LCMS churches, adapting to the schedules and needs of families.
“These gatherings of pre-teens or teens are still focused on helping to deepen the youths’ understanding of God, grow in Christ-centered community and serve others in Jesus’ name, although the youth group experience is often different from church to church,” said Shults.
Available resources, the personalities of the youth and the culture of the community influence what is offered through each church’s youth group. Some youth groups may focus on Bible studies, others on fellowship activities and outings, while others give attention to servant events.
While the majority of congregational youth ministries are led by volunteer lay leaders and parents, many also have the guidance of pastors, directors of Christian education, deaconesses, directors of family life ministry and other professional church workers. Either way, youth groups exist to support the catechesis and Christian formation that is already happening in the home.
“Parents are the primary leaders for their child’s faith life,” said Rev. Mark Kiessling, director of LCMS Youth Ministry. “However, youth ministries provide additional support for youth as they grow. As young people begin to develop identities outside of their family, youth ministry can provide a warm, Christ-centered place with peers and adults who will walk with them during these years.”
Not only that, added Kiessling, but they “provide opportunities for young people to lead and serve one another, as they learn about current and future vocations, [as well as] a safe place for young people to explore how their faith interacts with their lives and to ask difficult questions.”
Future church work
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of youth groups is the chance for young people to learn about their giftedness through the lens of the church, while they study God’s Word and theology alongside their peers and grow in wisdom. Through that study, and with the guidance of parents and other authority figures in their lives, many children discover an interest in and aptitude for a future in church work.
“My church youth group at Prince of Peace in Springfield, Va., was definitely formative for me and led to my interest in the pastoral ministry,” said Rev. Dave Miller, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta. “My youth group leaders and pastors were the first people in my life to tell me, ‘Hey, you really love theology; you should consider being a pastor!’ I’d never considered it before then, and I don’t know if I would have without that early guidance and encouragement.”
Although not every LCMS church may be large enough for a formal youth group, all churches can seize the opportunity to support families and young people through mentoring, encouragement and education. Congregations do best when they partner with parents and grandparents to care for the youth of the church, even when it doesn’t look like a typical “youth group.”
“Youth ministry and the importance of the family are not an either/or decision,” said Kiessling. “The LCMS puts a high priority on all ages worshiping together and on intergenerational fellowship. That emphasis does not eliminate the need for age-appropriate and specific education and community. We hope that every teen is involved in worship and is connected to the whole life of the church – youth ministry is just an extension of congregational ministry specific for that age group.”
Join us as we pray. Heavenly Father, may our young people learn to grow up in the knowledge of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Grant that they may serve You well and usefully, developing their talents not for their own sakes but to Your glory and for the welfare of their neighbors. Protect and defend them from all danger and harm, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
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