If there's one thing I've learned in youth ministry in the last six months, it's people over programmes. Whatever size of church we're in, but perhaps especially in larger churches, we love our programmes. And maybe, we were good at them before March. We ran mid-week groups and weekend groups. We might have run youth services, after-school clubs and sports teams. We said that we were all about people, but programmes were so much easier to run. Then Lockdown came.
Maybe like us, you didn't miss a single meeting. You switched effortlessly from face-to-face to online groups on Zoom. Bingo! It was done. Maybe lots of people turned up. Maybe fewer than normal did. Maybe you lost your introverts and those connected with other churches. Maybe you lost those who only came for food, football beforehand or chatting after. Maybe over time you've lost those who are tired of Zoom. Our programmes may not be working like they used to.
Jesus didn't seem to have much of an idea about programming. He had a mission. He applied Isaiah 61.1-2's Messianic Mandate to himself in Luke 4.18-19. His programme seemed to be to go to the people and let the people come to him. He went to Simon's mother-in-law when she was sick (Luke 4.39) and let the people come to him (Luke 4.42) before heading away to the people again (Luke 4.43). He didn't avoid buildings, preaching in the synagogues (Luke 4.44), but he wasn't hemmed in by places and programmes. He was focussed on the people. They came to him and he went to them. Are we going to the people?
Many of us have kept our programmes running fairly effectively in Lockdown, but how are our people? Not just the keen ones who have kept attending, but the others? Maybe even the young people who are breaking social distancing guidelines in the nearby parks or those about to go back to school and college? Do we know? I need to correct this in my own youth ministry. For weeks we've been able to meet in groups of six and only a couple of our small groups have done so. One youth worker told me of meeting up in the park with a number of cones spread around. The first six young people to arrive went to the blue cone, the next six to the red cone and so it went on. Hardly a programme, but beautifully focussed on the young people who could now be together.
Maybe phones and doorbells were invented for moments like this. Let's ring them.
Dave Thornton is author of 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry'. Buy the book here.