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Churches seek to involve children, teens

Members of the Galilee of Friends (GF) youth group at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Campton Hills share their joys and concerns during their ending prayer.
Members of the Galilee of Friends (GF) youth group at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Campton Hills share their joys and concerns during their ending prayer.

If last week's deluge of rain – and the flooding it caused – gave the teachers at Hosanna! Preschool anything, it provided opportunities to teach their students about Noah and his ark.

Director Linda Horneck said the St. Charles Township-based school, which serves children ages 2 1/2 to 5, often ties its lessons about God to events the youngsters would understand. For example, teachers explain Christmas is a great birthday celebration for Jesus, and that God gave us the wind, sun and rain so we can pick pumpkins in the fall.

Hosanna! incorporates faith-based elements into all of its youth programs, which include a Sunday school program for children through the fifth grade, and youth ministries for middle and high school students.

"We want them to know the love and the joy of Jesus," said Lynette Anderson, the church's director of children and family ministries.

Hosanna! is not alone in placing an emphasis on providing programs for children and teens. Churches in and near the Tri-Cities say one of their most vital missions is nurturing the spiritual needs of the younger generations of their respective faiths.

Programs targeted toward youth are important because every age and stage of life are too specific to lump everyone's needs in a homogeneous pot, said Jerry Shaffer, lead pastor at The Well in Geneva.

Not having different programs for different groups, Shaffer said, "shows a lack of regard, a lack of honesty for what people really face."

'Living your faith'

The emphasis on youth comes at a time when clergy aren't sure what the future holds for their churches.

The Rev. Bob Jones of St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Sugar Grove said the tradition of passing down one's faith through generations is less common than it was three to four decades ago.

And Steven Srock, senior pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Batavia, said his generation – the baby boomers – and his parents' generation support the church more in time and finances while the generations that followed – Generation X and the Millennial Generation – tend to be more involved in direct service.

"Without that level of time commitment and financial support, what will the church look like in 30, 40 years?" Srock said. "We don't know what the church of the future is going to be."

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, one in four Millennials – those born after 1980 who began to come of age around 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Just 18 percent of Millennials attend services weekly or nearly weekly, while 26 percent of baby boomers did in the late 1970s.

The habits of Millennials aren't necessarily the same as those of their successors.

Religious education programs – including Sunday schools and youth ministries for middle and high school students – abound throughout the region. Some churches, such as Christ Community Church in St. Charles, have entire wings dedicated to children and teens.

Maria Sloncen, whose 5-year-old attends Hosanna! preschool, said she likes that he can talk about God, Jesus, Christmas and Easter at school. Giving her children a religious education – her 7-year-old also attended the preschool – is important to her, she said.

"I didn't have that when I was real little," she said. "I want them to have a relationship with God."

At Hosanna!, much of the learning in youth-focused classes is through hands-on activities such as cooking and art projects, Anderson said. Only one room has chairs, she said, and that's the computer lab.

In addition to Sunday school, Anderson said, children participate in service projects that have included making a meal for Lazarus House, a homeless shelter in St. Charles, and baking cookies for a nursing home.

"This is about living your faith," she said.

One of Horneck's joys is hearing that the preschoolers make their families say a prayer before eating a meal, just like they do at snack time in school.

"[That's] one of the big delights for us, knowing it's carrying over from school to home," Horneck said.

Similarly, parent Barb Enright said she likes that lessons taught at home are being reinforced at her children's schools.

Although her family is Catholic, Enright said, she sent four children to Hosanna! preschool before sending them to Catholic grade and high schools.

Each week, she said, her daughter's fourth-grade class at St. Patrick's Catholic School in St. Charles Township participates in eucharistic adoration, a time for prayer.

"It's so important for them to have that," Enright said.

'Putting on the armor of God'

Children are not the only focus for local churches. Many also have programs specifically for teenagers.

On Wednesday nights, teens from about 11 high schools gather at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Campton Hills for youth group, which they call Galilee of Friends, or GF for short.

"It's nice to have a second set of friends I can come talk to on Wednesdays," said Kirby DeBates, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Burlington.

But the members do more than socialize. Earlier this month, they spent a meeting preparing to welcome the eighth-graders who will be confirmed this spring. Many of the members also go on a mission trip every spring break.

This year, their destination was Florida, where they spent time at the Duvall Home, a group home for individuals with developmental disabilities. Brian Englert, a 17-year-old senior at St. Charles North High School, said they spent hours just holding the hands of residents.

"The nonverbal communication was amazing," DeBates said, recalling the power of a smile.

Jeff Graham, who volunteers as the church's high school youth director, said GF aims to be a welcoming environment where everyone is accepted. It's a place for teens to feel safe and comfortable to express themselves, he said.

"They really look at each other as a family," Graham said.

In Geneva, teens meet daily before school to participate in the seminary program offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beginning at 6 a.m. with an opening hymn, the high school students study scripture and the teachings of the savior, youth seminary teacher Aaron Secrist said.

This year, their focus is on the New Testament, he said.

"In the Bible, it talks about putting on the armor of God," he said, referring to Ephesians 6:11. "That's what we're trying to do each day."

Secrist said although some teens arrive bleary-eyed, the early hour doesn't dampen their participation. He considers himself more of a moderator, because the teens generally divide into groups, read different passages and teach the class what they mean, he said.

"Kids don't listen as much to adults as they do sometimes to each other," he said.

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