Chanon Ross: Treat youth as agents, not objects, of ministry

Teens holding a globe

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Youth want to do more than participate in ready-made service opportunities, and the work of youth ministry should be to help them experience their own agency, writes the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.

On Christmas Eve when she was 14, honor student Keiana Raven returned home from the doctor in tears. She had just learned that she was pregnant.

Keiana decided to keep the baby, and in the weeks that followed, she and her family wrestled with the weight of her situation. Would she be able to keep her grades up and stay in school? What about extracurricular activities? Could she still go to college?

As her pregnancy progressed and her son was born, she felt the piercing gaze of her peers and the unspoken expectation that she would become just another teen-pregnancy statistic. Although her family was able to provide what she needed to be both a high school student and a mother, she realized that other teen moms in her school and community did not have such support.

Keiana asked her parents for permission to give some of her son Joshua’s things to other teen moms. They agreed, not knowing that Keiana’s generosity would lead her to an extraordinary and ambitious idea: starting a nonprofit to serve teen mothers throughout the Atlanta area.

Keiana established Joshua’s Closet International in 2008 at the age of 15 with the help of GivingPoint, a leading youth philanthropy organization. While still a high school student, Keiana grew Joshua’s Closet International into a registered 501(c)(3) that today partners with 20 other organizations and county governments to provide training in parenting, nutrition, job readiness, financial literacy and life skills to hundreds of teen moms. Keiana went on to graduate seventh in her high school class and won a Millennium Scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Keiana’s story is remarkable, but she is not alone.

In the last two years, GivingPoint has helped 60 young people like Keiana launch philanthropic organizations in the Atlanta area, training them in fundraising, volunteer recruitment, marketing, networking and other skills. The courses are taught by some of Atlanta’s top business leaders, philanthropists and nonprofit professionals.

GivingPoint has also created an expansive social media platform to reach youth across the country. Nearly 10,000 young people use this platform to learn about important causes, track service hours, raise funds and connect with other youth who want to change the world.

“I’m done being surprised at what these kids can accomplish,” said GivingPoint’s founder, Derek Smith, at an annual fundraising gala in August. “The question is not whether youth are able but whether we will empower them to change the world.”

Smith’s observation about today’s young people is a welcome insight for churches and Christian organizations who engage youth in service. Some of our brightest and most faithful youth want to do more than participate in ready-made service opportunities like mission trips, soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity.

Youth enjoy and benefit from such opportunities, but they also want to experience their own agency -- to make a difference in their communities by investing their lives in the issues they care about most.

Perhaps we have unwittingly underestimated the abilities of some of our young people by treating them as objects of ministry rather than empowering them to be agents of ministry. Might it be that churches and faith-based organizations could cultivate youthful passion to transform the world?

Answering these questions means asking our youth to articulate their individual passions for service. Which issues, causes or charitable organizations are most compelling to them? How could they make a difference? What organizations or initiatives could they start that could make an impact in their communities? How are these passions connected to their faith?

Youth are easily confounded by such questions, because they are not used to thinking of themselves as agents of change. GivingPoint knows this, so they developed an exercise to awaken youthful imagination.

I recently asked GivingPoint to lead a group of 20 high school students through this exercise, called the “Blue Sky” program. These youth from Grand Rapids, Michigan, in Atlanta for a weeklong mission trip, agreed to spend a few hours with the GivingPoint team. None of them had given much thought to how they might make a difference in their home community, but as they emerged from the Blue Sky exercise, they overflowed with excitement. Their ideas were interesting, compelling and diverse. They imagined starting programs to address homelessness, poverty, ecological sustainability, literacy and even local traffic problems. Of course, some of their goals were idealistic, but their energy was determined and focused and boundless. I found myself wanting to help them put their passion into action.

Isn’t this an important part of the work of youth ministry?

Thinking of youth ministry in this way -- as the work of mentoring passionate young people who want to make a difference -- creates opportunities for intergenerational ministry in congregations of all sizes. It can be done with just one teenager. GivingPoint provides youth with instruction and mentoring from successful business and nonprofit leaders, and these kinds of people can also be found in many congregations.

What might it look like for a congregation to link passionate youth who are idealistic, visionary and full of energy with adult mentors who have experience, wisdom, resources and connections? How might both groups benefit from one another?

Keiana didn’t launch Joshua’s Closet by herself. Countless adults believed in her vision and ability, and supported her in bringing her dream to life. Keiana benefited the lives of these adults as much as they benefited hers.

Like Keiana, many of the youth in our churches want to change their communities and change the world. Like Keiana, they bubble over with vitality, energy, urgency and vision. How will you respond to that love of life and positive outlook?

Resources for exploring youth ministry & philanthropy

The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary provides resources for youth ministers, pastors and lay leaders who want to explore youth ministry and philanthropy, including:

  • A free copy of GivingPoint’s Blue Sky program for use with a youth group
  • A free copy of “The Spark: Why Passionate Young Social Entrepreneurs Are Working to Change the World,” by Derek Smith
  • A new program, the Youth Philanthropy Academy, for Christian youth who want to launch philanthropic organizations

Contact the Institute for Youth Ministry by email at iym@ptsem.edu or by phone at 609-497-7914.