The Church Born in 2007
The pandemic generation is on the minds of everyone who cares about the church. The question for the group becoming teenagers in the pandemic is not just “Will they return to church?” but also “What kind of faith will they have?” For the past four years, I’ve been embedded on a covert mission to learn, listen, and love a very special and rowdy group of teenage boys, most of whom were born between 2006-2007.
When I accepted the call to become a seminary President, I wasn’t exactly sure how to replace the role that local church leadership played in my life. For 20 years, I was on a platform leading worship for 48 weeks per year. When Kelly and I married, the center of our home was the schedule I kept as an ordained minister. Serving the Church, working at a local church, and volunteering at a local church were three different things. I had done the first two; I was not prepared for the third– to be an active (unpaid) member of my local church. When I surrendered what I thought I could do for my church, an opportunity with our students found me and changed my perspective of youth and family ministry.
When we moved to Chicago, I was the scout team. I narrowed the churches we could attend down to three to four good ones. I told Kelly, “For 20 years of marriage, we have accepted a call to go where the Spirit led me; now you pick the church.” We chose Christ Church of Oak Brook for proximity, the chance to hear a woman preach regularly, and for our boys to have a dynamic youth group. Kelly plugged in sooner than I did. She participated in a World Vision marathon group and helped start a new campus in Downers Grove and eventually off Butterfield Road.
During those years, I focused on my work at Northern, preached where I was invited, and networked. I spoke fairly frequently; our church even invited me to speak a few times. But I felt lost when I attended on Sundays. After all, what does a church do with a seminary president who’s unsure of his weekend schedule?
When our younger son Drake began sixth grade and was then eligible to join the youth group, I decided I wanted to go to youth camp as a parent counselor. I needed something to do, and I wanted to share the experience with him. Our middle school director (who is now the Pastor of Families) Steve Noble was kind enough to let me hop in, and I had a blast. When they were enlisting new small group leaders (called “herds”) to help out on Wednesday night, I put my name in the hat and told him if he needed help, I’d be available. I worked with my assistant to figure out how to arrange my schedule to be at church each Wednesday—and thus began my adventure. Little did I know this would be one of the hardest assignments—and most fulfilling—I’ve had in ministry.
Steve gave me and my co-leader the rowdy group. Boys and girls are in separate groups. Drake was in “the other guys” group, largely docile, respectful, and friendly. I knew many of them from the neighborhood. They attended the same school and saw each other throughout the week. At church, I worked with the herd that went to multiple schools, rarely saw each other, and had difficulty connecting. They didn’t know who I was, what I did, or even that I was (supposedly) trained in seminary for this kind of ministry. None of that mattered to these guys. They just wanted someone to be present with them and keep showing up. I learned very quickly that adolescent small groups are not for the faint of heart. I tried to quit— twice. After some very difficult weeks, where we accomplished little and left a trail of snacks, I was convinced I wasn’t cut out for this kind of ministry. There was a reason I had never been a youth minister! But Steve kept reminding me that the first couple of years was just initiation.
Then COVID hit. What seemed to be a weekly round of craziness became even more important to stay connected. Some who have now returned had dropped out. Through zoom calls and text messages, we stayed in touch with as many as we could. During Lent 2021, we sent daily text messages to remind each other about the journey to the cross. Together we went through confirmation in the Fall of 2021. As a Baptist, I never had this experience. I wasn’t sure if confirmation was necessary, or what confirmation could accomplish. We added a few more guys to the group- yes, more came! Some were learning faith for the first time, others were going deeper, others were just there for the Cheetos. But by the end, a few professed their faith publicly and were baptized. Others just felt comfortable for the first time to be at a church. For all of us, we reminded ourselves of the basics of faith and re-committed to the journey with Jesus, wherever we are on that journey.
As is the case for most ministries, but especially with these guys, what I’ve learned from them is far more significant than what I’ve ever taught them. We’ve laughed, played, studied the Bible, texted, facetimed, and snacked our way together before and during the pandemic. They have been “my church.” I’ve learned that sharing your good and bad days is a very important thing—every week. They have taught me how to keep showing up in relationships—even when it’s difficult. They hold me accountable. When I’m absent, they facetime me to find out why I skipped. Having space to talk, process, and laugh about it creates safety for boys. They need to punch each other and tell you that their mom has cancer all in the same moment. They are also very deep thinkers about their faith; they see what’s going on with the world and are trying to think biblically about what they’ve observed. Multitasking/texting/snapchatting is just one of many things happening in the moment—all while they’re paying attention to you. They come to church to talk about the Bible; you just might not see it initially in their behavior. They look deeply to each other for support and friendship, and they care about one another in ways my generation does not. They listen to sermons and monologues a bit, and they really don’t like to sing. They mainly want to teach each other, ask hard questions, watch your reaction, and then throw a football—sometimes all at once.
I’ve also gained so much admiration for my youth ministry colleagues. I wish I would have known as a pastor what I’ve learned as a parent and as a volunteer. I would have been a much better Senior Minister. I should have volunteered as a member much sooner.
We have not yet designed a community for the church born in 2007. But if we listen carefully, they’re already helping us reimagine what that church is going to look like. There’s a lot of noise in their lives right now, and they’re inviting us to listen deeply to their struggles, celebrate their joys, and authentically share what we know.
We meet now on Sunday nights, and I’m still a poor small group facilitator. We’re crazy, and we have a long way to go on the journey as leader and disciples. When Paul said, “Don’t look down on you because you are young,” what he really meant is—just keep showing up. With God’s help and grace, we’re going to face this world together. This group of guys is ready to be the church.