Eighteen months ago I would have laughed if someone had told me that I was going to set up a youth cell at my church. My previous experiences of working with teenagers had been far from positive and I am a quiet, introspective person who prefers to sit at the back and observe
The church I go to has a regular attendance of sixty but the majority of members are over forty. Although we have three lovely toddlers in the congregation, my eleven year old daughter is often the only young person in her age group and as a result, she often complains about going to church. Who can blame her?
At one point my husband and I thought about leaving our beloved church family and moving to a larger church, where our daughter could be part of a established youth group. However, she told us that she didn't want to leave because she would miss all her "grown up friends at church".
One day, as I was praying about the situation, a thought popped into my mind. Perhaps I should look into to setting up our own youth cell. I knew there were several teenagers whose parents came to church without them, as they found the service boring or were busy playing sport on Sunday mornings. I also had an inkling that although my daughter's school friends didn't often come to church, they may enjoy coming to a group aimed at their age bracket.
I didn't tell anyone about my idea, but a few weeks later I was chatting to a friend over coffee when she shared that she had been wondering what we could do for young people on the edges of the congregation. When I told her that I had been having similar thoughts, we realised that God seemed to be giving us a nudge and we decided to take action.
After meeting to pray about our idea, my friend and I decided that our group should be held at my home, as it would be more relaxed and informal than meeting in the church. We then spoke to our church leaders, who were very positive about the idea. The process of setting up a group was frustratingly slow, as we had to apply for a DBS, do risk assessments, give out permission letters and present the idea to our PCC, which only meets every other month.
However, during this time of waiting, my friend and I had a strong sense that God was completely in control. It felt right that we should take our time and do things properly. Amazingly, towards the end of this waiting time, we discovered that a major youth work conference was happening just five minutes away at a local church. The keynote speaker was Mike Yaconelli, an American writer and speaker who is known for his pioneering approach to youth ministry. We just had to get tickets!
The conference turned out to be hugely inspiring. Mike Yaconelli was a funny and passionate storyteller who shared dozens of moving stories about his time as a youth leader. He told us how he moved away from needing to stuff every session with exciting content, and realised that the key thing is to be totally present with the young people in his care. He spoke about being real with the members of a group and allowing them to see how we live our everyday lives.
Hearing this confirmed that my friend and I were on the right track in basing our new cell in my home, as several of the young people who wanted to join the group had known me since the age of three. They had already seen the real me plenty of times! They had baked cakes with me, slept over at our house, and eaten countless fish fingers in our kitchen. Hopefully these young people had also seen that our family has a solid faith that we try to live out every day.
A month or so later, we held a youth cell barbecue and welcomed a group of shy teenagers into our home. At first there were plenty of awkward silences, but by end of the evening, with the help of a few silly games, the ice had been well and truly broken! For our first few sessions we spent time getting to know each other. We flipped pancakes, played truth or dare, made pizzas and chatted about what the young people wanted from the group.
Nearly one year on, we have a lovely group of six members, with a number of other young people who come when their family circumstances allow. The members occasionally invite their friends and I often get enthusiastic texts asking me whether youth cell is on this week. We have introduced the Bible by looking at key characters from the Old and New Testament, but we have also looked at topics which reflect God's character, including a session on buying Fairtrade chocolate.
We are beginning to build links with the rest of the church family and we made a special video which was shown at the Mother's Day service. This year we plan to invite members of the congregation to one of our sessions, so that the young people can feel connected to the wider Christian community in an informal setting.
I feel privileged to welcome these young people into our home every fortnight. There's nothing complicated about what we are doing. It is very simple; we eat, play games, share our stories and learn about the Christian faith. Then again, isn't that how it all began; gathered together in a home, sharing bread and faith?
Anna Whitehouse is a freelance writer and library worker from Birmingham. She co-leads her church youth cell and loves long walks with her dog and being surrounded by books.