Getting On Board: Transforming a Fellowship Into a Team

Shaun Sass
October 9th, 2009


It’s a youth worker’s dream. Just imagine: youth groups from 20, 30, or 40 churches getting together regularly through the year; dozens of other youth workers in your city cooperating together to accomplish this; willing cooperation between churches and parachurch organizations; a monthly forum for youth workers to discuss issues, questions, problems; the combination of the city’s churches’ strengths and contacts to reach teenagers and others with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The dream is reality in Rochester, New York—we call it Youth Worker Roundtable. Yet it’s a pity—and perhaps bad publicity for Jesus Christ—that in most places youth workers don’t share their questions, answers, and resources with each other, that they don’t become allies in the Lord’s work.

The Roundtable began with one youth worker, frustrated with little growth in his own youth group. Determined to find out what others were doing in their churches, he phoned the Bible bookstores to discover who the big customers of youth materials were—the quickest way, he figured, to find churches with growing youth groups. He asked his own pastor what he knew about other churches’ youth programs. And he called the YFC and Young Life offices.

Armed with what he had learned, he interviewed youth workers throughout Rochester, asking them not only what and when and how they did what they did, but pressed into the whys, too. As a result, this man became personally acquainted with a variety of youth ministers and ministries.

By the seventh or eighth interview, he had detected a common thread that ran throughout the city. Youth workers’ lives, he discovered, were largely isolated within the walls of the church—much like a house-bound single parent—leaving them no one to ask questions of, no one to complain to about problems, no one to be happy for their successes. Result? Strained, frustrated, and lonely youth workers. Many he interviewed said they wanted to get together with other youth workers and their groups, but it never materialized. Meanwhile, they kept slugging it out by themselves.

The interviewer didn’t need to sleep on this one—he immediately returned to his office and wrote eight letters, one to each of his new friends. “Let’s get together,” he wrote, “and talk about apathy in our youth groups.” It was a common problem exposed by the interviews.

Three came to the first meeting on a frosty Saturday morning in December, 1984. Two church youth workers and a YFC club leader sat around, drinking orange juice and munching donuts—and talking. “I came,” remembers one of those first three, “because I got a letter in the mail from a youth worker who said he had problems like I had problems.”

No Experts
It was a little disheartening since there were only three of us, but we got to know each other, discussed apathy in our youth groups, encouraged and prayed for each other, and agreed to meet again the following month at a different church.

“The meeting was designed so that there was no expert,” recalls one participant. “It was just a time of sharing between youth workers, trying to build each other up. That attracted me to keep coming even if it was just the three of us again. But we agreed to invite other youth workers to come with us.” The more people we got to come, we reasoned, the greater the potential.

“I think the most important thing we can do is affirm each other,” said one of the three that morning. “And I like saying what I think among people I don’t work under or over.”

Out went a second batch of letters notifying the youth-working interviewees of Roundtable’s second meeting. This time eight of us showed up (we first three each brought a friend or two). Our discussion—this time about vision—proved to be valuable, especially as we heard each other’s visions and then refined our own. At the end we decided to meet regularly from then on, choosing a weekday midmorning time. The place? We still liked meeting each month at a different church so that the Roundtable would never be identified with any single church, organization, or denomination. Format? Neither speakers nor programs, but a simple, relevant topic we could hash out. The host church’s youth pastor would mail reminders and lead the discussion, thus rotating what little leadership there was among all the members.

The third meeting saw 18 walk in the door, and by the fourth we were up to 25.

Allies and Workcamps
Allies ’85 grew out of this fourth meeting. Somebody suggested we get all our youth groups together for a fall kick-off rally—complete with Christian band, speaker, and a campus-evangelism strategy session of the kids themselves, divided up according to high schools instead of church groups. Thirty-five churches eventually participated in Allies ’85, as well as planners from five different denominations and YFC. (The tradition continues each fall. Typical fare is Petra, Tony Campolo, a three-hour college fair, and 2,500 teenagers.)

Allies not only generated a dozen Bible studies in various schools around the city, but our success with the autumn campaign prompted us to sponsor Workcamp, which of this writing has repaired 39 homes belonging to Rochester’s poor. “What I’m looking forward to,” shares a new member of the group, “is more of a joint strategy going beyond Allies in the fall and Workcamp in the spring. What’s miraculous about this thing is that it’s a truly ecumenical effort, with common goals and common hopes and common ground in the Lord.”

That’s not all Roundtable has spawned. The youth groups get together throughout the year for student leadership training workshops, Games Day in cooperation with Rochester YFC, New Year’s Eve parties, Bowling Blow-Outs, roller skating nights, and a calendar full of other events.

“Our kids are a small group, and sometimes they think they’re alone,” says one youth worker. “Through Roundtable and its team activities, they’ve started to realize that they aren’t the only Christian kids around.”

Slow Down The Clock!
Through Roundtable’s monthly discussions, its youth leaders have gotten to know each other, enjoy each other, and trust each other. “Probably the most important ingredient,” says one, “is the willingness to spend time together. For from that commitment comes our encouragement, our evangelism and outreach ideas, our workcamps, our Roundtable meetings—all we do, in fact comes out of a desire to spend time together, which in turn flows from our common bond in Jesus Christ.”

Now three years into Roundtable’s various ministries, we cooperate easily and gladly despite the denominational differences—Baptist, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, Methodist, Christian Reformed, independent churches, and others. We worship the same Lord, albeit in different ways (reallydifferent), but our unity in Jesus Christ has impacted our city. Sometimes the differences are raised, but usually—because we’re such good friends—we just toss off a few jokes about them and go on. Doctrinal differences simply don’t affect our working together since our focus is the worship of God, the Lordship of Jesus, and the importance of spreading the gospel. On those points we all agree.

“When we come to Roundtable,” explains one youth worker, “we break down all our denominational walls for that hour, drop all that baggage, and leave it behind. We come because we have a common bond—Jesus Christ.”

More Than Professional
At the heart of Roundtable are its monthly meetings in which friendship, credibility, and respect grows. We learn to feel safe with each other in the meetings. The meetings mean encouragement, they mean empathetic ears to hear, they mean a source of information that we can use in our own churches. Without Roundtable’s monthly discussions and sharing, our other events—and dreams—would never materialize.

“We make attachments—personal and professional—with each other,” reports a member. “Without them you can burn out fast in this profession.”

“I keep coming because I get encouraged and affirmed,” says another. “I feel supported in prayer here.”

At the end of each monthly meeting, we decide what to discuss the next month. So far we’ve hit music, youth workers’ needs, venturing into a student’s world, budgets and fund raising, short-term missions, parents, discipling teens, abortion and health classes, and discipline.

The most loosely knit organization I know, the Roundtable has no formal leadership. No one is “in charge.” It hangs together by the commitment of its participants to the vision that our city might see Jesus. In a sense, then, we’re all leaders. By pooling our resources and dividing tasks according to abilities, we all participate in the leadership. “The Roundtable is a county clearinghouse of resources,” one youth worker explains. “One advisor knows his stuff about audiovisual programming. Another is tops in small-group ministry with teenagers. Someone else has good ideas about Bible studies.”

Not everything has worked brilliantly. The local Bible Baptist churches refuse to associate with us for reasons we can only guess at. The Lutherans, Episcopalians, and United Churches of Christ dismiss us as too fundamental. And many other fine youth workers just don’t block time in their schedules for Roundtable meetings and events, choosing instead to work in their own corners despite our continuing invitations.

Baptists Plus AG Equals Warp?
Only a few times have we actually troubled the churches. One Baptist church, afraid their young people would become doctrinally warped, forbade their youth to participate in Roundtable events because of the involvement of the Assemblies of God. Despite the willingness of the Baptist youth leader, Roundtable is proscribed for him and for his young people. Part of the church’s irritation with Roundtable, too, arose from the amount of time the youth pastor was spending on Roundtable activities, time has congregation believed was better spend in his own church. Parishioners complained that they were paying him to work with their own young people, not to be gallivanting all over the city with the young people of other churches. Such a complaint belies the “short leash” syndrome, characterized by a pastoral staff that’s encourage to minister to their full capability—but it had better not go further than the four walls of their own church.

It’s a shame some churches can’t hurdle the barrier of distinctions. We canwork toward a common cause of Christ without agreeing on every point of theology. Cooperation doesn’t necessitate compromise. In their quest for purity, however, some churches lose their first love and actually end up dismembering the Body of Christ. Our Roundtable stands as living proof that, despite our differences, we can work together.

“Roundtable members are committed to the larger body of Jesus Christ, not just to our own youth groups,” comments a youth worker. “And that’s why a lost of areas can’t have a Roundtable—they see the Body of Christ as their particular youth group or church.”

Yet we, too, struggle with how much time to invest in Roundtable projects and group efforts. We each feel the tug of so much work that needs to be done in our own churches and that competes with the time required to do Allies and Workcamp and all. It’s a fine line we walk. But since our own churches have come to support our Roundtable work, they tend to be forgiving.

Working Out the Bugs
In addition to skeptical churches, there’s the logistical dilemma of accommodating volunteer youth workers, who generally don’t have the leisure to take in our daytime Roundtable meetings. We never could get evening meetings off the ground. We’re still working on this one.

We also struggle with finances. Since we’re not a church with assets, or a fund-raising entity like a mission board or YFC, our group projects always sag under the financial burden. Only through much prayer and more sweat have we financed three $10,000 Allies events and two $6,000 Workcamps. God has always helped us dig out of a hole—yet finances are always a concern.

So we encourage the participating youth groups to give Roundtable a hand with fund raisers throughout the year—city-wide yard sales, mega-carwashes, mini-masters fund-raising golf tournaments, roller skating parties. Sometimes we tack a buck onto a concert or amusement park ticket price and donate the extra money to the Roundtable. We solicit donations from local Christian businesses and write to Rochester churches pleading to be put on their missions budget. When we visit churches to explain Allies or Workcamp, we ask for individual donations. And, of course, we take offerings every chance we get.

With the vision of Rochester’s 75,000 teenagers in the back of our minds, we are compelled to step outside the four walls of our own churches, hold hands together, and plan ways to reach those souls. Such a vision ended our division.v

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.