By Josh Hiben
Growing up in a non-practicing Christian family, I never attended church until my friend Steve invited me to youth group when I was in middle school. We played balloon basketball my first night, and gradually Bloomington (Minnesota) Covenant Church became a place where I showed up now and then to have fun.
I was a junior in high school when my parents separated. I began to ask some of life’s big questions—which led me to cling to that church community and to a new life in Jesus Christ. A new story began for me in those years, and without my friend’s invitation, I don’t know where I would be today.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized that not every church kid has a youth group to turn to when they need it the way I did. I was a senior at North Park University, and my friend Andy was working as an intern at Sojourner Covenant Church in the near north suburb of Evanston, Illinois. One winter day in early 2012, I tagged along with him to meet with some youth leaders and volunteers from four different churches.
They were meeting in a rundown Chinese restaurant near the campus. The leaders served small churches with between three and ten high-school students in their congregations. None of their churches could hire even a part-time youth pastor, let alone a full-time position. They shared similar frustrations about how little they were able to offer the young people in their congregations.
Their agenda that day was to pool their resources, volunteers, and administrative tasks to begin planning monthly community events of fun and worship for their students. Within ten minutes we had planned our first broomball night together.
We returned to that same restaurant excited to plan more events, month after month. But one problem became clear: How long could this handful of leaders continue to communicate, administer, plan, and pull off these events while still juggling their other church responsibilities?
We all recognized how important it was continue those monthly events for the students, but the energy and time to plan and execute them was demanding. Soon enough we stopped meeting as a group, and Andy and I, in communication with church youth leaders by email, continued making the monthly events happening until we graduated.
That summer after graduation, I began to wonder whether other churches in our area were in the same boat. I started making phone calls and quickly realized that these four churches were just a microcosm of a broader community that had the exact same needs.
In a typical model of youth ministry, an individual church fosters community for its young people by creating safe and engaging spaces and programming for them. The congregation strives to create a dynamic community where their students can grow and thrive as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Yet this model of ministry can be isolating. It means individual congregations are on their own to come up with the finances, volunteers, outreach, programming, and care for students—as well as a critical mass of students themselves. What does that mean for churches who lack the means to meet all those needs?
There are twenty-two Covenant churches on the north side of the metropolitan Chicago area. Of those congregations, only two employ full-time youth pastors.
Of course that doesn’t mean no young people attend those other twenty churches. It just means they don’t have the means to sustain a traditional model of youth ministry. The economic reality is that with only a dozen teenagers in the church, hiring a full-time youth pastor wouldn’t be a savvy way to allocate limited resources. As a result, more and more churches are forced to rely on bi-vocational or volunteer youth workers.
The problem occurs when our students fall through the cracks in our churches. They may disappear from church once they are confirmed. Or they may attend services each week, but without a thriving community of their peers in Christ, they miss out. They may struggle to develop healthy peer relationships. Even students who desire to wholeheartedly follow Jesus may stagnate without adults who are able to invest time and energy in their growing faith.
That meeting in the Chinese restaurant wasn’t the first time these churches had collaborated. In fact, their work was a revitalization of a joint effort with the Central Conference between 2008 and 2010. Yet leadership changes and lack of finances running dry meant the effort had died out.
Debbie Baumgartner is a member of Jesus People USA Covenant Church and a founding member of this collaboration, now called Covenant Youth Collision. She says, “For years, it didn’t look like CYC was really taking shape. A few of us met with Central Conference director of congregational vitality Peter Sjoblom for lunch once a month to plan and talk about the future. Peter was instrumental in keeping the dream alive. He was so encouraging and saw any step forward as a step toward fulfilling the vision.”
Now the pieces were coming together. Organic Covenant relationships, new bi-vocational youth pastor roles were emerging, and God’s timing was at the heart of this revitalization.
My own situation was emblematic. After graduating from college, I worked for nine months as a youth intern for Sojourner Covenant Church and volunteered as director of the collaborative ministry. In that role, I started calling other churches in the area explaining our hope and vision, and in the fall of 2012, we added four more congregations, doubling our partner churches to eight.
Organic Covenant relationships, new bi-vocational youth pastor roles were emerging, and God’s timing was at the heart of this revitalization.
We spent the next year gathering each month for a Collision event—and we began to experience the power of collaborative youth ministry. Sustainable relationships between students and leaders developed. Monthly events included a barbecue, a volunteer night, a retro Olympic night, worship nights, and more. Relationships between students flourished. Youth leader relationships flourished because we cared for each other’s students and each other’s ministries.
One parent noted that Collision expanded her family’s vision of the church. “We have a great church,” she said. “But through Collision my son gets to know all these other kids from churches all over the north side—suddenly the church is bigger and wider than just our congregation for him.”
Soon we identified three areas where we could help our high-school students to grow even deeper in Christ: discipleship, mission, and leadership development. In the fall of 2013 we launched a discipleship program, which brought together students from all eight churches who were interested in meeting weekly to deepen their faith in Christ. It quickly became a “super youth group” of students who all wanted to know and love Jesus and one another the best they can.
That following spring I was hired as the part-time youth ministries coordinator at Grace Covenant Church. Our group has twenty-five students ranging from seventh-grade boys to twelfth-grade girls in the same room together every week. Clearly their needs and interests span a vast spectrum! The CYC discipleship program has been incredible—I am able to invite three upper-class students who want to memorize Scripture, articulate their faith, and develop authentic community to join other students from across the city to do that exact thing. Even larger youth groups sometimes struggle to create space for this kind of intensive study and discipleship.
And it has been life-changing for our students. “I grew up a non-practicing Catholic until a former teacher of mine, Erik Tenglin, connected me to a Covenant church when I was in middle school,” says Joe Dybiscz, who graduated from high school this year. “It wasn’t until that church joined Covenant Youth Collision that I met a larger network of peers and leaders who helped mold me into who I am today. Without the weekly discipleship, I don’t know where I would be today. That group invested in me and taught me how to become a true leader in Christ in my community and in the world.”
Since 2012, CYC has grown from four churches to seventeen partner churches. Each week ten students meet together for a meal and small group discipleship. Each month nearly 100 high-school students gather for an event of fun or worship or outreach. Each semester our high-school kids plan and host a middle school event that draws fifty students. We are both Covenant and non-Covenant, English- and Spanish-speaking, and we come from a range of perspectives economically, politically, and theologically.
These students and leaders are walking hand-in-hand even when they don’t see eye-to-eye, and they are being transformed by their core identity together in Jesus Christ. Students in the church are developing new friendships with students across economic, racial, and community lines, and students outside of the church are being welcomed into a larger and deeper community. And leaders are encouraged that they are not alone or isolated in their own youth ministry efforts. They are embodying the Covenant’s identity that we are better together.
Bringing students together from a wide range of communities and backgrounds inevitably includes a learning curve, and we have experienced challenges with racial reconciliation among our students. Moving forward, we are being intentional about making sure our leadership reflects the diverse student population we serve, specifically hiring women and ethnic minorities for intern and staff positions.
“I have come to rely on Covenant Youth Collision as a strong partner in ministry,” says Erik Tenglin, part-time youth pastor at Edgebrook Covenant Church. “My youth ministry program has greatly benefited from our involvement. It has provided my students with intentional and meaningful opportunities to grow in faith and encourages them to live into a life of abundance in Christ.”
This fall we plan to introduce two additional opportunities for our students. Students on the Serve team will learn what it means to serve as Christ served while at the same time learning about social justice issues in Chicago. Every week they will volunteer at three rotating urban humanitarian sites working with refugees, after-school tutoring, and the homeless population.
The second new program is Lead, where high-school students will gather weekly to plan monthly events for middle-school students from our seventeen partner churches. The high-school students will lead, plan, and execute everything from worship and sermon, to games, skits, small groups, and workshops. Students may apply to participate in the discipleship group, Serve, or Lead.
In addition, we are teaming up with North Park University’s Center for Youth Ministry Studies to administer a research survey of 1,000 churches on the north side of Chicago. With support from the University of Chicago, we will seek to identify and understand the culture and climate of urban church youth ministry in our city. Through this project we also hope to identify and hone the specific needs for collaborative youth ministry in Chicago and beyond.
Youth leaders, volunteers, and parents are the backbone of Collision. Our board of directors includes parents and lay leadership from several of our partner churches, and they have been instrumental in both moving the organization forward and in fundraising.
CYC is funded through a variety of sources. Each member church supports us through an annual gift from their overall budgets. If CYC has served their church for at least a year, they are asked to pledge $2,500 annually to help us to continue serving them. We are grateful for the generous grants we have received from the Central Conference and from the Covenant Children’s Home, and for the many dozens of individual donors who believe in our mission and give generously.
We are beginning to imagine what it would look like to have more than just seventeen churches involved, but twenty-five, fifty, one hundred churches coming together to serve their students and be a voice for change in our community. And we believe this model can be imitated anywhere. It can be adapted to small towns and other metropolitan areas—wherever kids are hungry for Jesus. Churches in your community could join together to nurture their youth as disciples of Jesus Christ. Collaboration between Covenant churches or between churches of other denominations could make space for students to grow and engage the story of God together.
Collaborative youth ministry recognizes that congregations don’t need to be isolated. It brings together students and leaders from multiple churches to build a larger, dynamic community that is stronger and can go farther together. This model promotes the importance of joining together from a range of economic and ethnic backgrounds where students can thrive in the body of Christ. And it provides a way for each student to grow deeper in Christ alongside students from other churches who desire the same thing.
Kids need Jesus, and they need someone to walk alongside them as they figure out what that means. That is true for any geographical or cultural cross-section of our world, whether urban, suburban, small town, or rural ministry. We all see the need in our respective communities, and we are willing to try a new model of ministry to help fill that need. We believe that God gave us the church to bring his name to all the earth, that everyone would know how good and perfect God is.
Let us all work together to make this a reality for each student we have the privilege to encounter.
Interested in learning more? Go to youthcollision.com.