Editor’s Note: Mark Taylor is the youth minister at Arlington United Methodist Church and graduated from the CYMT program in May 2013 with an MA in Youth Ministry.
by Mark Taylor
Arlington, Tenn. is a bedroom community just east of Memphis and Arlington UMC is more than 100 years old. No formal youth ministry existed prior to my arrival as youth minister, so we have focused on creating a rhythm and consistency over the last two years. Being a part of the CYMT program has created a support system that very few pastors and churches have. CYMT helps to facilitate an ecumenical mindset in many of my members. When the congregation finds out that I’m in a program that is training youth ministers from many different backgrounds, in different denominations, you can see the light bulbs go off in their heads. Most churches don’t view youth ministry as a serious call, or they see a youth minister as a maverick who simply wings it. CYMT fights that image by providing me with a network of support and experience, while also educating me holistically so as to better serve my congregation and the community.
When I first arrived in Arlington, I really wrestled with the fact that I was living in one of the wealthiest areas of West Tennessee, while 20 minutes down the road 30 percent of Memphis was living below the poverty line. I almost felt shame. But I had to recognize that the students in Arlington needed the hope and victory of Jesus Christ in their lives just as badly as any.
Our “Night on the Streets” (whose title we have had to stress over the unfortunately catchy “Homeless Night”) is evolving out of essentially three ideas.
We wanted students to be taken out of their comfort zones (mine as well), learn about the poverty all around them, and learn to take part in the suffering.
The experience is simple. Students arrive about 6 p.m. at a designated location with only a sleeping bag, blanket, and clothes. Food is minimal: hot dogs and water. No buns, no condiments, no snacks. There is time for hanging out—maybe board games or tossing a football around. Then comes a time of discussion and worship. We have had speakers from street ministries talk to our group. We provide character profiles of those people we might encounter in poverty. We talk about the staggering statistics of poverty. We discuss the scriptures that call us to provide spiritually and physically for those who are suffering. We praise God, and we pray.
And then we sleep outside. In November.
We have cardboard to make shelters, but the night is a long one. The first year we did it, I may have slept 20 minutes total. After a night sleeping on the ground in the cold, one is tired, cranky, and probably wanting to go home. So that’s when we go serve. Service could take place in a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or simply doing yard work in struggling neighborhoods. We recognize that sleeping outside for one night does not give us the ability to know what it truly means to suffer in this world, but it is much easier to see God’s image in someone when you’ve just spent the night in the dirt.
The great thing about organizing this event is that when things go wrong, it adds to the overall experience. Not enough food? We’ll just have to make do. It’s freezing (literally)? One night outside won’t kill us. If some students are complaining about the evening, you’re probably doing something right. This night might draw everyone one of your students, or it might frighten some away, and that’s OK.
2012 was our third year of Night on the Streets. The night has evolved into something slightly different each year. The first year we started small. We used a church member’s property in the town of Arlington, and we slept under the roof of a horse pavilion. It was absolutely freezing and miserable. That was kind of the idea.
The second year, I worked with CYMT alumnus, Jason Smith, the youth minister at Covington UMC outside Memphis, and we combined our youth groups for the event. This was an excellent experience, and we again used the property from a member of the church.
2012 brought some changes. We started this event with baby steps. Our youth do tend to live in a bubble, so we created uncomfortable, but still familiar, environments. Last year we took another step, and we spent the night outside of a church near downtown Memphis. We were on a busy street so we experienced the lights and traffic noise all night long. This was a much more intense night than the previous ones.
One thing that stands out from this past year is we went out the next morning into the neighborhoods surrounding the church where we’d stayed to do yard work. It would make no sense whatsoever to tell the people we were working for that we were from a church in another town, so we just told the neighbors we were from the church we had slept in front of. This meant a lot for me that our work was not about our church, or our students, but rather it was about serving God and people as the Body of Christ.
CYMT is proud to announce the expansion of our original initiative into Theology Together 2.0. CYMT aims to develop a curriculum to be used in local congregations and ministries. Taking what we have learned about engaging youth in deep theological reflection during missional experiences and embedding those processes into congregational youth ministries.
"I hope students come away from my courses with the ability to think more deeply, richly and theologically about their youth ministry practice. I think a lot of what happens in youth ministry happens unreflectively and can be deforming to young people, and my courses are intended to give students a theological framework for evaluating and reforming their youth ministry practice."
Of course, I want students to drink deeply from the academic readings, lectures and discussions, and I want them to be informed by the academics. But more than that, I want them to see that youth ministry is a calling of God, an important part of God’s mission in the world, one that should give them pride and evoke humility at the same time.