“Putting aside the horror of a contagious disease,” said Christopher Stanley, youth pastor at Loma Linda University church, “the pandemic had some uniquely positive features.”
While it may seem a bit “Pollyanna-ish” to find a silver lining in the global pandemic, as a youth pastor, Stanley saw real benefits to life moving online.
“In modern society, kids have very little time to reflect and process their own internal voices,” Stanley explained. “Technology has become ever more pervasive, and their schedules both in and out of school are packed, leaving no time for them to be awed and reflective.”
During the pandemic, however, this changed. Thirty youth regularly logged on to Stanley’s virtual Sabbath School on Instagram—and stayed fully engaged the entire time. In the live feed comments section, they shared things and became vulnerable in ways Stanley says they would never have done in person.
“These young people let me in more during our time in quarantine than they ever did before we went online,” he said.
Stanley built an interactive program from the very beginning. Each week, they chose a different Bible story and examined it in detail, using their imaginations to fill in the gaps. For example, when they read about Jesus celebrating at Simon’s house following the resurrection of Lazarus, the group concocted a party theme and menu for the celebration.
“They remember in detail every single story we studied during the pandemic,” Stanley said. “We have a collection of inside jokes and awesome stories because it was interactive and imaginative. We came close to each other and close to the Word, letting the text speak to us and making the Bible a living thing.”
They also made time to be in nature together. Masked and socially distanced, the group met at Joshua Tree National Park to spend time with God.
“Creation speaks to us in a unique way,” Stanley pointed out. “We are created to be in and a part of nature, and seeing these kids have transcendental moments watching the sun set over the desert was beautiful. They were blown away by the space, the beauty, and the experience. Being forced to take Sabbath School outside was healthy for us, and it’s something I’m grateful to the pandemic for reminding us.”
According to Ivan Ostrovsky, associate pastor at Fallbrook Church, creating a tight-knit and God-connected group is exactly the way to start preparing young people for a life of service.
“If you want to make a difference in the community, you have to start with your own house,” Ostrovsky said. “As a youth pastor, I absolutely want the youth involved in any outreach we do, but before we go into the community, I want to make sure our own church is a healthy environment.”
To this end, Ostrovsky has spent much of his three years at Fallbrook building a sense of community within the youth group. When one of their members had a birthday but couldn’t come to church, he coordinated a caravan of cars to drive by the house to sing and drop off a cake.
They didn’t falter because of COVID-19; throughout the pandemic, the youth made videos of themselves offering inspirational and encouraging messages, which Ostrovsky shared on Instagram several times a week. He also gave them weekly challenges, such as doing jumping jacks, spending time reading their Bibles, or gazing at the stars.
“It’s not just about learning,” Ostrovsky emphasized. “It’s about living life together. It’s not a duty or a responsibility; it’s a family getting together.”
And as a family, they can more effectively make an impact on their community. During the holidays, Fallbrook youth put together food and gift baskets for a local community full of kids. Pre-pandemic they went regularly to sing and visit with residents of a local nursing home and put together care packages for college students in their church.
“Community is definitely a crucial precursor to outreach,” agreed Jessie López Abdul-Karim, associate pastor for Azure Hills church in Grand Terrace.
When the young adults of Azure Hills were looking for a way to connect socially, they asked López Abdul-Karim if there was something they could do together. “They didn’t want anything formal—they just wanted to relax and have fun together,” she recalled.
So they started a Sabbath birthday brunch at the church once a month. And it didn’t stop once the pandemic started; instead, it morphed into Collective Eats—a monthly online group cooking event on Fridays that generated much conversation and laughter. For several weeks, one member bought and delivered ingredients for everyone who wanted to participate. Then they gathered on Zoom and cooked in their own homes together.
“While we cook, we talk about life,” López Abdul-Karim explained. “It’s an interactive hangout we all find incredibly meaningful.”
She also pointed out with a laugh that it is not a health ministry. Over the last several months they’ve made strawberry shortcake, tofu spring rolls, French toast crunch, lava cakes, pad see ew, egg tarts, and breakfast quesadillas, among other treats. It is, however, a ministry that follows in the footsteps of Jesus’ ministry.
“A lot of young adults find it difficult to enter a church just because they’re invited,” López Abdul-Karim said. “Collective Eats is an outreach designed to allow us to not only connect with each other but also to meet new people and bring them into our conversations, which we hope will eventually turn into seeing them attend our Sabbath School discussions and church.”
Creating opportunities to meet people and eat together is exactly what Jesus did, López Abdul-Karim pointed out. “The early church broke bread together,” she said. “Jesus had a food ministry. He fed the 5,000, He shared a meal at a meaningful time with His disciples—He understands people’s need for and love of food.”
Understanding all the needs of a community—spiritual, emotional, and physical—is what makes an outreach project effective. Crave, the young adult Sabbath School at Campus Hill church, has made it a point to do exactly that, starting from within.
“Crave is a deeply caring, creative, and multicultural hub for young adults,” explained Shiphrah Fepulea’i, associate pastor. “We are very intentional about making our group a safe space for everyone—regardless of language or music preference, background, life stage, or any other factor.”
Two of Crave’s core values are to reflect our Creator and to authentically reflect who He created us to be. Even during the stress of COVID-19, the young adults found safe ways to spend time together to beat the isolation, such as hiking, biking, and lake trips.
As California began to emerge from the pandemic, Campus Hill young adults recognized the need for a healing event to commemorate the one-year anniversary of their community going into lockdown. So the idea of an art therapy night was born.
“Though some had been vaccinated, we kept the event outside because we wanted this night to be possible for all,” Fepulea’i said. “It was an event for those who needed healing, and we all needed to feel safe.”
The group provided easels, canvases, paintbrushes, and paint, and invited the community to attend. They capped the event at 25 in order to be able to maintain social distance, but the interest was much higher.
“The majority of participants weren’t regular, intimately plugged-in members of our church,” Fepulea’i shared. “It was really special to see who the Lord brought in.”
Every single participant asked them to do another art therapy night, and one is in the works for later this summer.
“My favorite thing about this young adult group is that it is a place where we can pour out our hearts and find healing for our souls through honesty, transparency, vulnerability, and respect for the pace and journey of each person,” Fepulea’i said.
Ultimately, this is the type of authentic Christian every youth group leader dreams of helping shape.
“The most desirable outcome of youth ministry is to create young people who are compassionate, thoughtful, careful citizens of this world who find purpose and direction through the life and teachings of Christ,” Stanley concluded. “The pandemic gave us a special opportunity to explore different effective paths to that outcome, because Christ and the Word became a greater focus in our ministry to each other and to our communities. And that’s truly all that matters.”
By Becky St. Clair