Youth Ablaze!

by Roland Lovstad

Imagine: Confirmation classes so enjoyable that young people invite their friends.

“We’re blending the lines between confirmation and youth ministry,” says Justin Vetrano as he describes “Youth Ablaze!”—a partnership involving about 10 congregations in the New York City area. “We are seeking ways for engaging young people in a relational ministry. At the same time we are teaching them the tenets of their faith.”

0108youthstory1.jpgOn alternating weekends, a team of five high-school students packs a van with musical instruments, props for puppet shows, or costumes for skits. They leave St. James Lutheran Church in St. James, N.Y., where Vetrano is director of youth and family ministry. The team travels to one of eight congregations in Queens that rotate as hosts for teaching, witness, and fellowship.

In Queens, the pastors have decided to use the events for the main teaching points for their confirmation programs. Most congregations have one or two confirmationage students, but the twice-monthly “Youth Ablaze!” sessions usually draw 35 to 40 participants. The host pastor provides the teaching, and St. James youth supply music and skits that coordinate with the lesson. Host congregations also supply food.

Every Tuesday, another team from St. James goes to St. John Lutheran Church in Holbrook, N.Y., for a similar activity. Because the congregation has a vacancy, Vetrano does the teaching.

“Youth Ablaze!” is an outgrowth of the confirmation program at St. James. In developing the program six years ago, the congregation has found ways to make instruction enjoyable without losing substance, involve youth during (and after) confirmation, and help them learn to witness to their faith.

On the second and fourth Sundays of the month, St. James youth gather for two hours of skits, games, music, and thematic instruction. Seventh- through ninth-grade confirmation students are assigned to small groups of five or six led by a high-school-age faith mentor.

The confirmation event is more like a mini youth gathering, with a band, confirmation instruction, and small groups in which participants can share about their lives, Vetrano says. “In making this an enjoyable experience, they naturally bring their friends,” he continues. “We have young people who bring their Catholic friends, their Jewish friends, and in Queens, they bring their Muslim friends.”

Confirmation evenings at St. James usually include about 150 young people with active youth leadership. Vetrano observes, “It’s an incredibly powerful experience when you have 150 young people sitting in small groups, praying together.”

In addition to Sunday evenings, students have to engage in fellowship and service activities in the church. Service and mission projects involve them in efforts such as raking leaves or cleaning houses for community residents. Summers see middle-school students participate in “servant events” in the area. High school-age students travel greater distances for servant events and even embark on a Luther tour to Germany.

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“Community and relationships, that’s what it’s all about—our relationship with God through Jesus Christ and how we live that out with people,” says Vetrano. “It transcends fun. It gives young people purpose and makes them an active part of our church and the ministry of the congregation. That’s who you are here.”

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