KIMBERLING CITY – With spring church youth activities cancelled and most summer plans on hold because of quarantine and social distancing restrictions brought on by COVID-19, youth ministers are adapting to new methods of ministry. They say the changes are bringing blessings and benefits they hope will continue after restrictions lift.
Youth pastors are using new ways to preserve student relationships that are challenged when students who thrive with face-to-face contact can’t meet. The new methods are even enhancing youth ministry.
Sean Gasper, student associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Kimberling City, said, “The relationship aspect of youth ministry in junior high and high school is extremely important.” Social media and one-to-one contacts are helping him keep relationships intact for his group of 50-60 students spread across a large rural county just west of Branson.
Gasper uses Instagram, YouTube, instant messaging and texting to send notes and devotionals to connect with his students. He and his wife, Jennifer, also employ face-to-face conversations such as porch visits to students’ homes.
Across the state and near Cape Girardeau, Daniel Maasen – worship and media pastor at First Baptist Church of Jackson—also oversees student ministry for a youth group of 10 students in grades 7-12. He agreed that student relationships are vital in a ministry with unique characteristics.
“Loneliness and depression are issues youth ministers have always had to address, but they become more of an issue when students are prevented from meeting together. It’s true now probably more than ever as every source of social connection has been cut off for them.”
When Missouri Governor Mike Parson restricted public gatherings to no more than 10 participants, ministers postponed or cancelled activities—sometimes well into the summer—and put planning on hold.
That meant that even with Maasen’s small group a dozen youth events were cancelled just in the period between mid-March and mid-April, including Sunday and Wednesday gatherings, fundraisers, and other activities. And, whether larger summer events will happen is in doubt. He’s still unable to plan due to the uncertainty of when public gatherings will again be allowed.
“The biggest challenge so far has been in the planning of future events such as summer camp, outreach opportunities, and VBS—which is a major service opportunity that our students love to help with,” Maasen said.
Like Maasen, Gasper said, “We cleared the calendar” and he doesn’t know when he’ll start planning again. However, he’s hoping some youth summer events such as student camp can be pushed to the fall. Some cancellations, such as the annual high school seniors trip, can’t be replaced. This year the group was going in May to Nicaragua to build houses with Project Hope.
Losing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities is very disappointing. Gasper says social media comments sometimes indicate a one-to-one follow-up with a student is necessary. He also uses daily texts and IM (instant messaging) to connect with students. On Saturdays, he and his wife have one-on-one calls with students; she with the girls and he with the boys.
Recently, the couple made porch visits to students’ homes to deliver snacks and remind them they were important. Gasper says one student was particularly moved by the visit.
“She turned, saw us at the front door, and just started crying she was so excited. She missed her church family.”
Pastors say online resources help to facilitate connections and they’re all online more than before.
First Baptist Church of Arnold Student Pastor Tom Bell says, “We are obviously using technology a ton more. We have ramped up our social media presence and have actually seen more engagement with our video lessons than we would have in person for a normal student service.
First Baptist Arnold’s student ministry focuses on small groups, though it has more than 300 students in the program. Not being able to meet, group leaders have turned to discussions on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Participants receive video lessons 15 minutes before the sessions so they can prepare for discussion. Bell says that and the work of student volunteer leaders has helped enhance his ministry.
FBC Jackson also uses Zoom for church-wide Bible studies and worship. For students, Maasen is using the computer streaming software Discord.
The online resource Discord—with audio, video, chat, and text functions—was originally developed to allow video-gamers to communicate with each other as they played. Maasen uses it for group meetings.
“Using Discord we’ve been meeting once a week to encourage each other, share devotional times from the Word, and play games as a group. We also have a texting thread that’s used daily to keep everyone involved.”
Maasen says students are engaging over the technology, and it has enhanced the student ministry. “I think everyone is kind of desperate to engage with someone…anyone…that reminds them that they’re not alone right now. (Texting) really enhanced the comradery of our little group that was, to some extent, lacking previously.”
Not all First Baptist Jackson student activities have been online: The youth joined other church groups of less than 10 in community-wide missions events, such as delivering packages with church information to young people who are not members, distributing toilet paper in the community, and stuffing 7,000 eggs for an Easter egg drop to hundreds of area children. The community efforts were highlighted on local TV broadcasts.
All three ministers say they see blessing in the crisis and hope some of the new things they’ve incorporated in ministry will continue.
“A silver lining to this pandemic,” Bell says, “is it has forced us to branch out into different avenues and mediums we were not using as much because we never had to do so.”
Maasen hopes to continue student daily conversations via texting. Gasper wants to continue recording his daily devotionals for all church members.
With all the challenges and changes Maasen says he’s been encouraged by the students. “We’ve really seen God bless the efforts of a few at a time and multiply our efforts to accomplish His goals. It’s been really fun to watch and be a part of.”
Bell says he’s also seen “group dynamics grow stronger as (students) grow closer through this time” at First Baptist Arnold.
In Kimberling City, Gasper sees blessing in students having increased time at home that is strengthening family relationships. The elimination of sports, band, and other activities students would typically have allows them the opportunity to reset priorities.
“I tell them to ‘continue to focus (on their spiritual walk) and that God is going to do something great through this. Keep watching for that. Keep looking for ways (they) can be impactful.’”
Bell also sees open calendars for pastors as a blessing and time “to really pause and look at what effective ministry really looks like and not just do what was effective in years past. It helps bring clarity to what is actually needed and vital for making disciples and what isn’t.
“I think we will look back on this time and see how God moved us out of comfort and into more effective ministry through the changes we have had to make.”