Archive for July, 2013

We Can’t Do It the Same Old Way–But We Can Still Do It

Recently I participated in a memorial service at the church where my sisters and I grew up. Our family was actively involved with Maynard Memorial Methodist Church and its successor, Culver Palms UMC, for sixty years. Darlene, whose life we celebrated that day, was the wife and mother in another family that was also connected to the church at least that long. She moved into the community with her husband and their small children a few years after my parents moved me there. Darlene and Glenn’s children were close in age to me and my younger sisters. The six of us (along with some others) moved through Sunday School and an active youth group together. Eventually life scattered most of us. Maynard merged with nearby Palms Evangelical United Brethren church following the merger of the two denominations in 1968. The newly-formed Culver Palms United Methodist Church eventually sold both properties, built a new facility in a much more advantageous location, and continued its strong ministry.

Maynard Memorial provided a solid faith foundation for the children in our families and a number of others. Granted, the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s were prime time for families and churches. But the people at Maynard took their ministry with children and youth seriously and did it well. In my own ministry I’ve looked back frequently at my experience growing up in the church and wondered: How could the church I was serving offer an equally foundational experience for the children and youth we served? A few times I think we got it right. Some other times I know we didn’t.

The memorial service brought together many of us who grew up in the church during that era, along with some of the leaders and teachers who shaped and guided us. That “homecoming” has me asking again: What made that church experience so pivotal in so many of our lives? Obviously we can’t do ministry the way we did fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. Too many have already tried and failed! But I believe it’s absolutely essential for today’s churches to offer equally strong, life-shaping ministry with today’s children and their families.

This is the first of two parts. In the rest of this post I want to describe briefly what I believe were key aspects of the ministry we experienced as children and youth at Maynard. Next time I will suggest ways today’s churches can build those qualities into their ministry with children, youth, and their families. Obviously I don’t have all the answers. (Otherwise I’d be on a book tour right now!) But I hope we’ll begin a productive discussion that leads to positive changes.

Five key qualities shaped the ministry I experienced at Maynard Memorial Methodist Church:

1)      Church and family partnered in the faith formation of children and youthYes, it was a different era. Yes, it was a simpler time. Yes, “family” ain’t what it used to be.  But here’s the truth: The families whose children grew most from the church’s ministry didn’t “outsource” their children’s spiritual development to the church. They took ownership of the ministry. They intentionally structured their family life to make church participation a priority. Most volunteered at some level. This group included some single-parent families, a rarity in that era. They were often looked down upon by church folks who lived more conventional lives. But Maynard welcomed and included single-parent families.

2)      The whole congregation valued and cared for children and youth. One woman (just a kid last time I saw her) spoke gratefully of specific ways Darlene and others had loved and valued her and all the children. I remember a number of adults who regularly greeted me by name and spoke to me. Some extraordinary laypeople invested years of love, time, and energy in various aspects of children’s and youth ministry. They involved us early and often in meaningful projects within and beyond the church. As soon as we were capable, those of us with even the faintest glimmer of musical ability were invited (OK, sometimes corralled) to sing in a junior choir or other groups. Non-musical folks had other opportunities to serve in worship and other areas. These were not “show” opportunities. They were real ways to offer meaningful service.

3)      Children and youth were integrated into adult-level ministries wherever possible.  In the early ‘60’s our very white church exchanged pastors and choirs one Sunday with a very black church. It was a Big Deal. Racial views in our church were far from unanimous. The community where most of our members lived had mechanisms in place designed to exclude “Negroes” (the term then in use) from purchasing homes in the community. Four of us high school students in the adult choir were full participants in that exchange.

4)      The church stretched us by exposing us to the wider world. As we grew into adolescence, we had numerous opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith experiences. We met missionaries up close and personal. We were exposed to all sides of controversial issues. Pastors and other adult leaders shared their opinions when asked, but always encouraged the wide-ranging questioning and curiosity of which youth are capable.

5)      Clear values were consistently taught and modeled.  Our pastors and key leaders didn’t just talk a good game. None of them were perfect, of course. But their through-the-week walk matched up with their Sunday morning talk more often than not. Most of the vocal supporters of civil rights and integration already had close relationships with folks of other races. Some other folks corresponded with and visited Japanese-Americans imprisoned in camps by our government during World War II. These Japanese were Christians and US citizens. But the government deemed them a security threat after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and completely uprooted their lives. At least one of those families became core members of Maynard. The commitment to peacemaking extended even to fellow church members. The congregation worked through many controversial social, political, and church issues. Sometimes some people didn’t behave well. Live human beings are that way, aren’t we? But for the most part the folks who talked a good game of peace and justice extended that to their relationships with one another even in times of conflict.

These qualities marked the strong healthy church experience that helped shape a number of us. Next time—How can we build these qualities into ministry in our very different 21st-century context?