Youth members of First Reformed United Church of Christ pose with dozens of blankets they have collected to donate to Crisis Ministry of Davidson County as part of the church’s January youth project. Pictured are: (front) Ava Miller; (second row) Elliott Smith, Kalyssa Hutchens, Emory Smith and Haylee Hutcheson; (back) Claire Smith, Lucas Peterson, Jianna Miller and Addie Walser.
Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch
By Vikki Broughton Hodges
The Rev. Elizabeth Parker Horton, pastor of First Reformed United Church of Christ in Lexington, said there is an old saying that “youth are the future of the church,” but she and her staff are trying to make them important to the present in the new year.
“We have a new focus this year to allow the youth to be more active in the community,” Horton said. “Part of our ministry is being part of the community.”
To that end, the church has begun a monthly community or church youth service project in which the entire congregation helps fund or donate items, but the youths take responsibility for following through on the projects. For example, Sunday was “Bring a Blanket Sunday.” Sunday school students and congregation members brought in about 50 blankets for Crisis Ministry of Davidson County. The youths will put tags and ribbons or bows on each blanket and deliver them to the homeless shelter later this month.
In February, the youths will raise funds from the congregation with a “noisy offering” in which a tin can is passed around to collect spare change to buy food for the Communities In Schools backpack program. In March, the children will take Easter treats to home-bound church members who can no longer attend Sunday services regularly.
The youths will make chew toys from old T-shirts and bake dog biscuits for the Davidson County Humane Society in April. Other service projects will include getting back-to-school supplies together for students living at the American Children’s Home and other students in need.
“This really falls in line with the UCC’s call to social justice and being active in the community,” said Horton, who came to the church in October. “We want to teach the children what discipleship looks like.”
Cathy Waitman, director of Christian education, said the church’s youths have done sporadic community service projects in the past, but this is the first time they have been planned on a regular basis. The new emphasis on the youth program grew from a series of three meetings in November of last year in which children met with church leaders, parents met with them in another meeting, and they all met together to finalize plans.
In addition to the service projects, Waitman said the Sunday school program has been revamped, and children are taking active roles in the Sunday worship service with individuals serving as youth ushers, Bible stewards and acolytes.
Horton noted young children, especially those who do not yet read, often do not comprehend parts of the worship service, but they do understand symbolism, such as the role of the Bible steward literally “bringing in the word.” The youth ushers help greet members and hand out the children’s bulletins and crayons for the youngsters.
“We want them to know the worship service is not just for grownups,” Horton said. “I have three kids myself, so I know what it’s like to sit in a pew for an hour with a 5-year-old. But even at that age they are learning the rhythms of worship and that’s important.”
Waitman said the Sunday school program has also been reorganized from four youth classes into two — one class is preschool through fifth grade and the other class is middle and high school grades.
The younger group will do rotation lessons in which a Bible passage or story is taught through interactive activities such as games, cooking, art, music, computers, science, video and storytelling. The older group will have new Grapple lessons, in which they watch a video based on a Bible passage and then discuss how it relates to them today, such as a lesson on bullying. The teachers for the lessons, including some parents, will rotate for both groups.
First Reformed UCC has about 300 members on the roll and about 100 to 120 active members, with 21 of those between the ages of four and 16, Horton said, so they are an important part of the congregation.
“We want to get them involved now — to take some ownership and pride in the church,” Horton said, noting most mainline churches are struggling to engage and retain their younger members.
Several young church members said the service projects are a good way to help others in need in the community and teach them gratitude for what they have.
“It means we’re helping somebody stay warm by giving them things we already have — that we take for granted,” Kalyssa Hutchens said of the blanket project.
“It gives (the youths) a positive image in the eyes of other people and those who go to our church,” said Addie Walser.
“I’m very proud of our church,” said Ava Miller, who noted the new pastor and revamped Sunday school program have made church more fun, and attendance at Sunday school classes has grown.
Vikki Broughton Hodges can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.