I come from a church named after the famous place of John Wesley’s heartwarming encounter—Aldersgate Methodist Church. The pandemic was a unique opportunity for us young people to examine our hearts in the way that Paul urged the Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 13:5). Without any opportunity for our parents to nag us to go to church (for some, to be literally dragged), without time with our friends to look forward to, without the exciting activities of the Youth Ministry in church, we could see into our hearts more clearly than ever.
for those whose hearts were warm with the presence of Christ, the pandemic was ut a minor interference to their faith. What is a pandemic when neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from God’s love? (Romans 8:39) The pandemic was like the rain described in Matthew 7 that destroyed the fool’s house but left unscathed on the wise man’s abode.
During the pandemic, some used the extra time on their hands to participate in a month-long Youth Discipleship Programme, meeting online twice daily for fellowship, prayer and learning the Word. The pandemic was a life-changing period of blessing for them. But for many others, the pandemic was a period of languishing and resultant guilt.
Through the pandemic, God led our youth leaders to recognise that what matters is not our methods or programmes but the hearts of our youths. It is of utmost importance that they should personally encounter and enjoy the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the spiritual vaccination that we need against mediocrity, worldliness and sin that will leave our hearts strangely warmed.
The pandemic was God’s way of refining our Youth Ministry
I think God used this crisis to refine our Youth Ministry, to bring us back to our true purpose.
Our leaders had many questions: Can we still disciple our youths without meeting in-person or in large groups? How can we still be a church and a community?
At Youthphoria, we concentrated our efforts in two areas—our Cell Groups and weekly Youth Online Services. We tried to be as consistent as possible in the face of the changing pandemic restrictions, but it was truly stressful for our cell group leaders during this time.
This highlighted the importance of the support structure and care for our leaders. We relied on them to be in contact with the youths. However the lack of touch points and in-person interactions with the youths made discipleship difficult. This led to leaders feeling burnt out.
As for our online services, we had to try different methods of engaging youths; sustaining their attention was one challenge, and re-creating a spiritual atmosphere over a screen was difficult.
Segments of the service were pre-recorded to overcome the limitations of the equipment available to us but it only added to the feeling of disconnect. We tried calling watch parties for services in Cell Groups but that didn’t succeed as well as we had hoped.
Now that we are re-gathering physically, we have realised how the pandemic has conditioned us to isolate ourselves from others, not just physically but relationally as well. Therefore, we must now intentionally work to foster real life-on-life discipleship.
Even though not all the lessons are new, the pandemic has shown up the core principles of Youth Ministry more clearly. We pray that God continues to help us to refine our ministry, for the ultimate purpose of making our youths true disciples of Christ.
We gave our best by persevering, being intentional and creative
The pandemic was uncharted waters for everyone. We could not do things the same way anymore. Zoom fatigue was real, dynamic communication was harder than before, and technical difficulties did not help. All this caused a strain on relationship building. My fellow youth leaders and I felt helpless, and we were worried that our youths would find it difficult to bond with one another. Yet, despite our concerns and struggles with the lack of control, uncertainty and absenteeism, God was good—he reminded us that anything was possible, as long as we were willing to partner him and each other, and to change our perspective.
So we evaluated our old methodologies. We were challenged to be more intentional and creative in engaging our youths, facilitating online discussions, and simply persevering despite the tough times. A typical conference call was not engaging enough, and many of the experiential games we had used as hooks had to be adapted. God was faithful and provided ideas and resources. We employed more visual cues through slides, spent time and effort to curate interactive activities with virtual spaces like gather.town for special occasions, utilised online-friendly platforms for quizzes, fellowship and games, produced homemade videos to celebrate significant moments. We learned to give our best and have fun in the midst of it all, to trust, and surrender our youths to his loving hands.
With all the time spent “alone”, some youths grew closer to God. A few found it less intimidating and eased into the group more easily behind a screen. Ironically, those usually busy with many other commitments could make time for online meetings! God even pointed us to opportunities to serve locally despite cancelled plans for overseas mission trips.
Going through a period of not being able to physically meet definitely taught us to treasure the times that we could. We have relearnt the significance of communal worship, and the need to reconnect with the larger church community. We know now the importance of being flexible, to continue assessing the real needs of our youths and adapt accordingly. We gained a confidence to be bolder in thinking out of the box, to allow God to speak and work in new ways in our ministry. In losing some of the limiters we placed on God, we gained a renewed heart to walk and serve in his ways.
Good shepherding is the key
When authorities began announcing safe management measures in 2020, we had over 300 youths in the middle of an awesome Youth Alpha campaign, who were looking forward to a 3D2N overseas camp as the highlight. Staff and volunteers also scrambled to livestream services and the learning curve was steep for everyone. Even as an IT-savvy pastor, no words could adequately express my discouragement as precious youths (and their parents and leaders) slipped away despite our best efforts. What did we learn? Here are my pastoral reflections based on John 10.
Be a shepherd that is genuine (v11)
View the pandemic like a wolf that catches sheep and scatters them. But shepherds are God’s solution to the wolves. Shepherds take personal responsibility for the relationships of the entire church. Shepherds will not give up in connecting with their sheep. People can tell the difference between a shepherd and a hireling who drops out when the going gets tough. Shepherds inspire others through their love, care and personal sacrifice. The resolve to be a shepherd is a necessary conviction from the start (v18).
Be a consistent voice (v16)
When wolves appear (and they will), sheep scatter as the environment becomes unpredictable. A clear and consistent voice helps lost sheep orientate themselves. Leaders need to find spaces to make themselves known and heard. From carefully curated teaching content to mid-week social engagements, leaders who make themselves available to their youths are more likely to retain them. We ran online lessons on relationships and apologetics, encouraged short mid-week prayer meetings, had online meals together and even converted some services to online gaming sessions. Not everything worked, but youths appreciated the prizes and rewards (bubble tea!) we sent their way. The leaders’ consistent presence with them signalled that they mattered and were valued. It is this consistency, combined with personal touch, that brought back many lost sheep that were temporarily displaced.
Be an actively engaged shepherd – Listen, Learn & Love (v14)
Good shepherds seek to know and engage their sheep. To this end, we trained ourselves to harness online engagement tools. Instead of recorded teachings, we opted for Zoom with real-time service and created segments for youths to share their struggles, testimonies and empowered them to pray for each other. Sermons included quizzes, polls, and word-clouds that allowed everyone to participate. We listened discerningly to their responses, learned about their struggles and prayed for the concerns they raised. We milked every possible way to keep the community engaged in real-time in order to preserve relational authenticity.
No attack lasts forever. Shepherds know the importance of trusted relationships while battling wolves. A shepherd’s faithful commitment to the flock will ultimately pay off as surviving lost sheep find their way home. Don’t wait for the next attack to build trust. Start today to be a shepherd who is genuine, consistent, and engaged.