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Our congregation in Pella, Iowa, went through a nasty split 10 years ago. After the dust settled, we were left with about 40 percent of our former members and very few children or young people.

Since we’d always been a “boy heavy” church, our Cadet Club hung on. GEMS effectively dissolved, as there simply weren’t more than two or three girls in that age group. Our youth group re-

organized with much smaller numbers.

We prayed for new members, new families, new life. And God answered our prayers, though not in ways most of us expected.

Our GEMS club started once again in 2003, led by a handful of volunteers, none of whom had any previous GEMS experience. We asked God to send us 10 girls that first year, which seemed a ridiculous proposition, since there weren’t more than three or four in our entire congregation.

The first night we opened our doors, 13 girls arrived.

From that point on, it became clear that our growth would come through our youth programs. As more and more girls from the community joined GEMS, they brought their brothers and friends to Cadets. New Cadets, in turn, brought sisters and friends who swelled the GEMS ranks. We began a group for seventh- and eighth-graders called The Bridge. Members of all those groups are now beginning to graduate into our youth group, YACS (Young Adults in Christ’s Service).

This past fall we had more than 100 children and young people in our programs, about 60 to 70 percent of whom are not members of our church and most of whom have no church home.

As God has blessed our programs, the families of these kids are beginning to trickle into the church, first for GEMS or Cadet Sundays, but more often for regular worship. Some are in the process of becoming members. One couple has expressed interest in helping with GEMS or Cadets.

Sounds great, huh? Real grassroots evangelism of the sort we all want to do, right?

Yes, it is, but when God starts sending you lots of new kids and their families from the community, new, complex, or tough issues can come along with them. Things can get messy, and it takes some adjustment for a congregation not used to such matters.

Heartbreaking Revelations

Wednesday nights at Cadets and GEMS soon became a litany of heartbreaking revelations and comments: one girl told how her mom had been arrested earlier that week for manufacturing methamphetamine; another shared her anger and frustration at being the center of a custody battle. A Cadet confided to his leaders how he often has to drive his drunken father home from parties; a seventh-grade GEM shared her concern over her best friend having sex with several high school boys.

Those of us in youth ministry learned quickly that we weren’t just GEMS, Cadet, Bridge, or YACS leaders. We were counselors, confidantes, mediators, spokespersons, and protectors.

We were the ones to follow up on the strange bruises on a girl’s legs. We were the ones to speak to a parent about signs we had seen that his son was depressed. We were the ones to stand up to an angry parent when we refused to let him pick up his daughter because he’d been drinking. We were the ones interceding in ugly divorce proceedings where the kids were being used as pawns. And this realization of our role in these children’s lives brought us to our knees. We knew that without the Spirit’s guidance we were in way, way over our heads.

For a long time what happened on Wednesday nights stayed on Wednesday nights. The congregation might have had a vague idea of some of the problems, but it wasn’t until these children and families began attending worship that the culture clash really started.

Culture Clash

It began with little things: kids and their families taking juice after the morning service into the sanctuary (a big no-no in our congregation); a parent jumping up and videotaping her daughter on GEMS Sunday; community families parking in “reserved” spots (although how they were supposed to know when there was no sign is anyone’s guess); hassles with holding the GEMS/Cadet Car Races on a Sunday afternoon simply because so many of our kids’ parents would otherwise be unable to attend.

Then bigger issues emerged: What do you do when a GEM brings her “two dads” to GEMS Sunday? What about when a Cadet father gets cited in the paper for his third DUI? Should we welcome the teenage mother who’s pregnant—again? How do we help the girl who has scars all over her arms because she cuts herself? What about those kids who simply don’t know how to behave in a church service?

To paraphrase that quintessential Iowa movie, Field of Dreams, when you open your doors, they will come. And when they come, they’ll bring messes with them—both literally and figuratively. Thankfully God has been teaching us the true meaning of grace.

We’re learning that reaching out, providing a safe place for kids, and sharing Jesus’ love with them is far more important than having clean carpeting in the church basement.

We’re learning that sometimes being the only stable adult in a child’s life is worth the wear and tear on the church van or the noise kids make on Wednesday nights.

We’re learning that unless you reach out to the whole family, you’re simply putting a bandage on the situation.

Has everyone in our congregation “gotten it”? No, not really.

After worship services during which 25 or more GEMS have wholeheartedly praised God with everything they’ve got, there will always be a few people who leave grumbling about the T-shirts we were wearing. There will be a few who, in spite of seeing 23 young people’s lives changed on a mission trip, will complain about the music we sang in our YACS worship service.

But that’s life. And those in youth

ministry learn to grow thick skins quickly.

For the most part, a painful, heartbreaking split caused us to grow up spiritually into a congregation that loves, that reaches out, and that doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

As we consider God’s grace through every generation in the wake of the Christian Reformed Church’s 150th anniversary year, it’s my prayer that that grace will extend not only to those of us who are fifth-generation members of the CRC, but to those who are tentatively dipping their toes into the water of life for the first time.

They deserve nothing less.

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