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Spreading God's word in kids' language

Religious groups hope to invigorate their congregations by courting youths with music, media and social activities.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 4, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mark Canfield likens himself to a missionary who must function in an unfamiliar culture.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Tre'Nisha Ainslie, 15, sings with the EXG Praise Band at Pinellas Community Church.
It's the reason he immerses himself in music beloved by the younger generation -- alternative, hip-hop, rap, house, techno -- in his crusade to spread the word of his Lord.

The youth minister at Pinellas Community Church, 5501 31st St. S, looks as cool as the kids he evangelizes. For a Wednesday evening program, he wears a black soccer shirt that hangs over baggy cargo pants.

"We try to be culturally relative," said Canfield, 38, an ordained minister who has been in youth ministry more years than some of his charges have been on Earth.

"We try to speak the kids' language. The way we speak to the kids, we don't use church language. We use the modern translation of the Bible. We use music and media styles that young people are used to."

That includes pumping music through powerful speakers designed to produce window-rattling, earth-reverberating effects.

Pinellas Community Church's approach is one that increasingly is being employed by religious organizations anxious to court and keep the attention of a key demographic. In Florida, with its quirky mix of theme parks and retirement homes, the latest Census figures show that the median age statewide has increased. For religious leaders, such statistics pose an interesting question: How to attract the precious resource of youth necessary to keep their organizations alive.

Excitement, relevance and commitment are some of the words often heard in response to such discussions.

"My task at hand," said Stephanie Kohan-Shohet, the new part-time youth director at Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, 300 48th St. N, "is to develop a program that excites the youth by combining a healthy mix of social activities, mixed with religious activities, volunteer work and, of course, fun."

First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo, where pastor Gary Hunt is in charge of about 150 middle school students, offers a variety of activities including gymnastics, karate, drama, singing, bikes, boards and blades.

"I credit the Lord for everything," said Hunt, 51, commenting on his thriving program.

"He's the main reason, but we try to keep it exciting. We do some fun things."

For religious organizations, however, it can be a challenge to find and keep youth leaders to organize those "fun things."

"The need is great for people involved in providing what we would call relational ministries in our church, and there are institutions that do provide preparation for this," said the Rev. William Kees, director of the Youth Ministries/Gathering Team for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"People who work in youth ministry get burned out fairly quickly, so we are trying to change that pattern," said Kees, explaining that his denomination has a grass-roots ministry, the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, whose aim is to nurture youth leaders.

The recent hiring of the first full-time youth director at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter, 140 Fourth St. N, is one indication of the increased importance being placed on ministering to young people.

Mark Rice, 40, will be introduced to the parish at the cathedral's 10 a.m. service Sunday, cathedral dean, the Rev. Randall Hehr, said Wednesday.

"At a parish the size of St. Peter's, this ministry is so important, we are going to dedicate a full-time position to this work. In the past, one of the priests would usually spend part of their time on this. Mark is not an ordained minister, so that is another shift," Hehr said.

"Obviously, we have a tremendous ministry to the elderly parishioners who have been members of St. Peter's for a long time, but in the staff we now have balance. St. Peter's fortunately has a good number of families with teenagers . . . and the outlook is obviously to draw in more families and teenagers."

Pinellas Park Wesleyan Church, 4400 70th Ave. N, also has recently hired a new youth leader. Tracy Sawyer, 30, left her teaching position at Rio Vista Elementary School for the full-time job as children's pastor.

She said churches have to adjust their methods to reach children and their families.

"We can't run a church of yesterday. We have to run a church of today," she said.

"Parents want their kids to be cared for and to know that they are safe and that they are learning in an exciting environment. They don't want their children to come to something that is boring."

Pinellas Community Church is equipped to defend against such possibilities. Its colorful junior high meeting place or Wired Room, as it is called, is abundantly supplied with Nintendo and PlayStation games. High school students meet in a gray, metallic-like room, where Wednesday night programs of live music, discussions and music videos take place.

A youth friendly hang-out also is part of the ministry at Congregation B'nai Israel, where a youth lounge, complete with television, VCR, couch, computer and stereo, was an integral part of the design of the recently built synagogue.

The Jewish community thinks it is important to nurture its youth, said Mrs. Kohan-Shohet, a former public and private school teacher.

"Our youth represent the link from our biblical past all the way through to leaders of tomorrow and without it, the future of Conservative Judaism may be at stake. So that's why it is important to focus on the youth. Part of my responsibility is to train the preteens and the teens to be responsible in their lives and as leaders in the future," she said.

Like others in his field, Canfield of Pinellas Community Church is grateful for the commitment some congregations make to youth ministry.

"I was the first pastoral staff that came on" after Pinellas Community Church was organized in the early nineties, he said.

"Before we ever staffed for music or other adult programs, we staffed for youth and children. When I came here in '94, I oversaw from nursery to youth. Now we have a children's pastor," Canfield said.

These days, 35 to 40 percent of those who attend the Pinellas Point neighborhood church are 18 and under, he said.

Wednesday evening, after a high-decibel performance by the church's high school band, Canfield made solicitous inquiries about the state of a reporter's hearing.

"I don't do this for me," he said with a grin.

"I do this for them."

It's an often repeated mantra of adults who feel the call to pass on their faith to a younger generation of believers.

"We would say what's most important about youth ministry is that it is relational," said Kees on behalf of the Lutheran church.

"The role that the church has is to listen to what young people are saying about their world. I think that young people would also say that sometimes what the culture says about them over-generalizes. Out of our expression of faith, we would say that every person, including youth, are unique gifts."

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