Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series highlighting youth and young adult ministries funded by Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. 

Teaming up is key when small congregations with limited resources want to engage youth. 

That advice comes from Jonathan Hemphill, pastor of Another Level Ministries, an ELCA worshiping community in Los Angeles with 40 members, including 15 youth. 

“I remember as a kid growing up there would always be groups of churches that did things together, but it seems like over the years that collaboration or that spirit of connectedness got lost,” he said. 

More than three years ago, that changed.  

“[Another Level] started doing things with a few churches. We started recognizing the value in doing things together,” Hemphill said.  

On Friday evenings, high school youth from Hemphill’s ministry and nearby congregations gather for “Friday Night Live.” For three hours, they eat, play games, learn about biblical figures and discuss everyday life issues, said FreXinet (Frey) Johnson, who manages youth programs at Another Level.  

To encourage local congregations to partner in youth and young adult ministry, Hemphill launched Ground Zero in 2015, with the support of a $30,000 grant from The Campaign for the ELCA. Since its inception, Ground Zero has held a bonfire, poetry night and other events involving youth from St. Mark and Ascension Lutheran churches in Los Angeles and other congregations. 

In February, Another Level teamed up again with St. Mark and Ascension to host a Ground Zero Black History Month program for youth. The event highlighted contemporary black role models and injustices faced by African Americans, Johnson said.  

“Some churches don’t have the resources or energy, but when we partner, we’ve got energy to do it together,” Hemphill said. “We’re better together.” 

Matt Keadle, pastor of St. Mark, echoed this sentiment. His congregation, which attracts roughly 60 members on Sundays with 20 high school- and middle school-age members, hosted a Ground Zero poetry night on its patio. 

“Some churches don’t have the resources or energy, but when we partner, we’ve got energy to do it together. We’re better together.”

“It was something we hadn’t done before,” Keadle said. “[The event] gave people a chance to share what was in their heart through spoken word. Some folks shared about social injustice, police accountability. People shared personal things about self-worth, identity. 

“I think Ground Zero helped bring some congregations together to do some new things. It’s helped us to reimagine things and see things in a new way.” 

In her work, Johnson said she’s noticed Ground Zero achieving its goal of getting more youth involved. And in a report on the grant, Hemphill noted that the program had reached out to nine Lutheran congregations and attracted more than 200 people to its programs in a 12-month period.  

“The impact has been that kids are really developing their faith formation,” Johnson said. “They are more positive. They are coming to the programs at church … and the collaboration, it’s working. People are working together.” 

Johnson said the program is also succeeding in teaching youth leadership skills.  

Hemphill, whose faith community is housed in an economically challenged neighborhood, stressed the importance of youth programming. “So many of our kids have experienced so many challenges and issues in life,” he said. “What we’ve done is give them opportunities and outlets to grow and think about their faith and be nurtured in their faith and connected through church. I don’t think our kids would be connected to church if they just had to regularly come and sit in the pews and that was it.”  

Those connections continue. In June, youth from Another Level, Ascension and St. Mark traveled to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston. Going forward, Another Level is exploring holding another bonfire and poetry night and rotating youth program events weekly at various churches.

Campaign update 

Youth and young adult ministries like Ground Zero fall under The Campaign for the ELCA’s Leadership priority. So far, donors have provided more than $527,000 to support 21 youth and young adult ministry projects in 15 states, said Mark Burkhardt, ELCA director of faith formation. 

A new round of $430,000 in innovation grant funds will be available later this year for such ministries, he added. 

It’s important to invest in youth initiatives, Burkhardt said, noting that youth and young adults are not just the future of the church, “they are the present and the future.” 

To learn more, visit ELCA.org/campaign.

Francine Knowles

Knowles is a freelance writer and former religion and business reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times.

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