Sparks are flying at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mount Joy, Pa. The congregation’s youth are pairing their burning passions with projects that serve the community, share the gospel, and help form and strengthen their faith.
The “Spark Team” effort is the brainchild of Michelle Shirk, Trinity’s director of youth and family ministries, who got the idea at a conference where Derek Smith of GivingPoint, a nationwide youth development program, was a speaker. “
His goal is to equip theological leaders to help youth make connections and see God working through them,” Shirk said.
Back in Mount Joy, she challenged youth to develop Spark Team projects using their passions and interests to make a difference in as many lives as possible.
“Initially I thought her expectation of us [was] way too high,” said 16-year-old Zach Rago. But he and his Spark Team met the challenge. Along with Abby Johns, Justin Myers and Hannah Williams, Zach created a “Senior High End of Summer Youth Retreat.” The four friends met weekly to design curriculum, organize the activities and food, develop a budget and plan publicity.
“We have a large rising ninth-grade class,” said Zach in early summer, “and the idea is to make them feel accepted into the senior high youth group from the very beginning.”
The team chose the theme “Doubts about Faith” to craft a weekend experience of faith development and bonding with new youth group members.
Eighth-grader Emma Johnston’s longtime interest in health and wellness was the impetus for a project on nutrition. Participants committed to 30 days of healthy eating following a printed plan that Emma designed. Afterward, participants could exchange their proof of completion for prizes.
Eighth-graders Emily Ashley, Kelsey Long and Milli Straub sponsored a 5-kilometer walk/run to help end world hunger. The three friends coordinated everything from registration, food, publicity, signage, designing T-shirts to runningthe event. The girls received a Thrivent Action Team grant from Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial to help with their event.
In addition to raising awareness about world hunger, their event provided more than $1,200 to purchase seeds for farmers in Haiti.
“It was a really good opportunity to learn that we could do what we set our heads to do,” Emily said.
Kelsey was realistic about the challenges the team faced. “You definitely have to take time out of your schedule, and you can’t procrastinate,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to see that it all came together.”
When life gives you bananas
The “big picture” faith/life connection happened when the girls saw that even at their age they could connect with and help people almost 1,500 miles away.
This lesson didn’t stop after the race either. Faced with an abundance of leftover bananas that were snacks for the event, Trinity member Beth Parker baked banana bread for sale, both modeling good stewardship and increasing the money raised. The bread was a big hit that resulted in even more orders, illustrating how flames fanned from a single Spark Team project grew into something bigger.
The Spark Team model also enables youth to explore faith and service using their unique gifts and talents. Anika Weaver’s passion for media production already had her working in local theater production and providing tech support in worship. For her project, Anika, 14, created a PowerPoint movie to celebrate the end of the youth group year. Not only did the presentation benefit the group, it helped the entire congregation learn about how the youth are serving and learning.
“We have to find ways to keep kids wanting to come to church, not just being [dragged] by parents,” Anika said.
Spark Teams assist families and youth by connecting their everyday lives to vibrant faith and ministry.
Teen musician Andrew Ashley received a Thrivent Action Team grant to purchase sheet music and design a summer piano performance series for residents of Juniper Village, a local senior living community. “I was bogged down with work and stress at the end of the school year,” Andrew said, “but through Spark Teams I could still make an effective project to help others and bring them joy.”Other Spark Teams are collecting sports equipment for inner-city youth, providing free tutoring and school supplies for at-risk children, leading arts-based worship services, raising awareness of the plight of homeless veterans, and sponsoring a first-time youth global missionary to Haiti.
Jessica Johnston, Emma’s mother, is a firm believer in the Spark Team approach. “As parents, and as the whole church, we need to look at children and realize that they really do have skill sets to do mission and ministry right now,” she said.
Anika’s father, Bo Weaver, agrees: “You need a strong parental and adult support system to give them direction and guidance, but you also have to give the youth the reigns.”
Shirk points out the intergenerational benefits of the program. “Adults in our congregation are so excited to help these kids live their passion,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful marriage of bringing our older generations together with younger generations of the church to help them work on their projects through the Thrivent grants, through generous financial support and through mentoring.
“My job is to point out where God is working through them. I get to say, ‘Wow! Look at that connection you made. Look at how God is using that spark in you.’”