Jason Byassee: In praise of the road less taken
I won’t normally praise staff members of mine in this space. But if you’ll indulge me a little, gentle reader, I can’t help but take the opportunity to brag on one, just once.
Vern Collins appeared at Boone United Methodist Church as a be-sandled, multiply earringed, recent graduate from our town’s college, Appalachian State, where, Vern admits, he was far more interested in fly-fishing than in studying. Vern was a shock to the system for a staid, high-steeple, university church like ours, where the only music on Sundays came through organ pipes. But our youth group was in a sorry state, and we were willing to try something radical.
Careful what you wish for.
Vern grew up in faith with Young Life in Greensboro. That parachurch organization places a premium on one-on-one relationships for discipleship with students and on small groups dedicated to the pursuit of holiness. Vern had no idea that the early Methodists invented the small group as a means of pursuing radical discipleship, pushing one’s fellow believers deeper in holiness, “watching over one another in love,” as we Methodists often put it back in the 18th century. He was just instituting what worked to help him grow in Christ as a youngster. Our church’s courage to hire someone who didn’t fit a buttoned-up profile reintroduced part of the Methodist DNA that we had lost.
Vern quickly realized he could put together a bang-up program for Sunday night. But the problem with entertainment-based youth ministry is the pressure to top the previous week’s showing. “That was awesome. What are we doing next week?” students would ask. And Vern and his volunteers would wear themselves out trying to out-do themselves week after week.
Why not scrap the format altogether? Have little or no programming on Sunday nights but meet in small groups week after week? That's what Vern has done. He trained small group leaders and then began gathering students into small groups Sunday after Sunday. Students now enter for dinner and games before breaking up into small groups, with communal worship occasionally punctuating the time. “It especially helped us reach students on the fringes,” Vern says. Under the old programming system youth could come and go without any face time with anyone from the church. Now he can be sure anyone who comes through the doors spends quality time with a leader trained, equipped and set loose for ministry by Boone UMC.
Vern tells a story that sticks with me about his early days at our church. He started inviting students to come to church for breakfast and bible study at our old church building in downtown Boone. The only room big enough for the students to come was an old-fashioned “parlor” -- the sort of room, as Marilynne Robinson says, that seems to exist only to contain objects that children will be forbidden to touch. It had white carpet. Don’t you know it wasn’t long before there were orange juice stains appearing on that carpet. So Vern and his volunteers moved furniture on top of the first stain. Another appeared. Another furniture move. “Then eventually we had to build another church,” Vern jokes. We moved into that new building in 2000.
Most recently Vern has been the face behind our church’s newest worship service -- an “emerging style” service in our church’s gym called Crossroads. He preaches weekly and leads his own congregation, where most of our students, young people, and others most disaffected with the church gather. One early preaching series included interviews with those who dislike or even hate the church, explaining why. The point is to welcome questions, agitations, uncertainties and general unchurchiness in the hopes of fostering earnest faithfulness. Our church’s missions coordinator came out of that service.
What started as an experiment is now a leading edge for our whole community. Will we follow where Crossroads leads?
Those are just some of Vern's gifts. Not bad for a kid who set off every alarm bell we had when he first turned up in 1998. That kid is now our longest serving staff member by far, the source of communal memory and wisdom among our ministers. We’re about to ask him to move into a new set of responsibilities: seeding small groups, training leaders, and moving the rest of our congregation where he once led the youth group.
Think we’ll follow where he leads?
Jason Byassee is a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference.