Nurturing "Strong & Couregous" Youth
Dr. Virginia Ward presenting at the #EQUIP June 1 launch
The Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has launched its newest project, #EQUIP: Nurturing “Strong and Courageous” Youth. The central purpose of the project is to #EQUIP clergy, lay leaders and parents to expand their vision for worship as they reassess their ministry to youth. #EQUIP will support local churches in the development and implementation of innovative initiatives at the intersection of youth ministry and worship. #EQUIP aims to nurture middle and high school youth into strong and courageous leaders within the local church.
Youth ministry in the 21st century is a complex challenge impacting church communities all over the globe. In the United States, many Christian teenagers acknowledge that building their faith in a church community is a meaningful aspect of their life, and yet are increasingly less likely to be committed church goers. As the percentage of those identifying as Christian wanes from generation to generation, the corresponding growth in those identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” is disproportionately greater among the young, with 13-18 year olds being two times more likely than the general population to identify as atheist. In a survey by the Barna Group, Christian teeangers identified the church’s lack of personal relevance and their own self-sufficiency as two main reasons why they didn’t prioritize church attendance, while their non- Christian counterparts cited their inability to reconcile the problem of evil and a good God as the primary hindrance to joining a community of faith.
Many youth of African descent in Black Christian communities understand the tensions voiced by their unchurched peers. Dr. Almeda Wright, Professor of Religious Education at Yale Divinity School, builds on the research and theory of religious educator Evelyn Parker in the Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans as she breaks down the disconnect that young people encountering racism, poverty and violence undergo when trying to integrate their experiences with their understanding of God:
“Young people revealed that God is very important and active in certain areas of their lives, but God appears limited or non-existent in other areas… The concept of fragmented spirituality among African American adolescents also points to and reflects trends within society at large… While I find it problematic that African American youth do not conceive of God or their Christian spirituality as responding to the larger systemic ills that they name in their daily lives… Fragmented spirituality helps youth function in a society where individualism is rampart and absolute truths are not part of the contemporary lexicon” (Wright 2017: 2-3).
As middle and high school youth strive to negotiate their faith in increasingly polarized social and cultural settings, Christian communities are charged with the task of ministering in effective and relevant ways that better equip them to respond to the challenges that they face.
Our work endeavors to address these and other questions:
How do we evaluate and recommit local churches within the Black Christian Experience as spaces dedicated to the religious education, spiritual formation and holistic development of young people?
How do we cultivate and coordinate the capacities, knowledge base and skills of clergy, lay leaders, parents and volunteers to more effectively help young people navigate the complexities of today’s post-modern world?
How do we institute a culture of worship which necessitates specific forms of youth participation that are then sustained as beliefs, processes, church structures, programs and discernable atmosphere?
Through #EQUIP the ISBCE is accomplishing interactive research that supports the development of new approaches to ministry that engage young people more fully in the mission, vision and worship life of their churches. Through #EQUIP congregations will access best practices and strategies that reflect their ministerial context as well as receive support in the creation and implementation of their own innovative ministry initiatives that address the spiritual needs of the middle and high school youth that they serve.
Through #EQUIP we are excited to lead and sustain change in our local congregations as well as contribute to a developing dialogue in the field of youth ministry and the study of worship, focused on how today’s Black churches nurture the spiritual lives of their young people.