This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bluffton professor shares youth ministry research

BLUFFTON, Ohio — Bluffton University professor Randy Keeler explained his findings as the 2014-15 Ohio Conference Youth Ministry Resource Person during Friday Colloquium at the university on Dec. 4.

Randy Keeler

The presentation related to Keeler’s ongoing work to articulate what defines Anabaptist youth ministry.

He led six workshops across Ohio for youth workers during his term.

“It was an attempt to help the participants think through why they do what they do in youth ministry and if what they do is consistent with an Anabaptist approach,” Keeler said.

He said a rewarding part of this role was meeting with 49 pastors of the conference’s 73 churches. He found that while youth ministry is thriving in some congregations, a dwindling number of participating youth in others has pastors rethinking how youth ministry should be carried out.

He analyzed the information gathered from these meetings through the lens of his doctoral findings. This includes three focus points for Anabaptist youth ministry: discipleship, community and peace and nonviolence.

One of the questions Keeler asked pastors was how young people were invited to Christ in their congregation. Answers included: an invitation to join a baptismal class, discussions in the home, through the mentoring program Life Planning or during a “camp experience” or Mennonite Church USA convention. The frequency of this invitation to faith ranged from every Sunday to never.

Keeler noted a lack of centrality in Ohio that is different from other MC USA conferences. The number of Ohio Conference youth who attend Camp Luz in Orrville is disproportionally lower than the number of Central District Conference youth who regularly attend Camp Friedens-wald in Cassopolis, Mich.

“Large-group events, such as convention or camp, are places where decisions to follow Christ are often made, but fewer and fewer congregations are investing in these venues as places of spiritual decision,” Keeler said.

He was happy to report that the involvement of youth through their talent and abilities is thriving in Ohio Conference. Many are involved on Sunday mornings by leading music, serving as worship leaders, performing in dramas and dances, collecting offering, helping with technology or even preaching. While it is difficult to include youth on boards and committees because of their school commitments, he praised those who try.

Forgetting accountability

He noted that the Mennonite church as a whole tends to ignore the importance of confessional times where youth are encouraged to be honest about struggles. He said that is how community really happens, and adults need to be models.

“We ask them, ‘Are you willing to be held accountable?’ at baptism, but we never practice it,” Keeler said.

Conflict resolution training indicates an intention to live out peace and nonviolence, but little has been done in this area. Some pastors indicated that as few as half of their members would consider themselves pacifist, though many pastors report a long history of nonparticipation in the military.

Keeler believes conflict resolution training is needed now more than ever, as congregations splint­er over issues of homosexuality. One pastor reported 80 percent of his time was spent trying to hold his congregation together.

“It’s important to remember that the problems of the Ohio Conference are not unique,” Keeler said. “Churches leaving both the conference and the denomination may cite that they are remaining faithful to being Anabaptist and feel as though others aren’t.”

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