When Andy Jung graduated from Campbell Divinity School in 2010, he was confident the Lord was leading him to youth ministry. But it was several years before Jung felt the Lord was pushing him in another direction.
Before Campbell, Jung served as the associate pastor of students and administration at Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh for 10 years, and before that as the minister of students at Concord’s Parkwood Baptist for five. By the time he earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, Jung was used to chasing a few hundred students around each week. It soon became apparent that God had other plans for him.
“God was starting to mess with me about changing my role in ministry,” Jung recalls. “I really didn’t understand why, or what God had in mind, because I really thought I’d be in youth ministry for the rest of my career, and that was what I wanted to do. Now that I can look back, I see how God was at work.”
Jung stepped away from youth ministry when he joined First Baptist Church of Albemarle as senior pastor in 2014. There, he quickly identified an area of struggle common to many churches; the vast majority of members were 60 to 90 years old. Upheld by the conviction that God had placed him at First Baptist to help an aging congregation learn to work with young people, he made it his mission to build connections across generations.
“Ultimately, I think unity begins with helping people have empathy for young people,” he said. “No matter what generation you may be in, there are certain preconceived notions held about youth, usually associations with laziness or apathy. But if older generations get to know young people and understand who they are, it makes a huge difference.”
First Baptist did not reinvent their worship style, bolster the activities calendar or create a new outreach program to encourage youth engagement in the church. Instead, Jung focused on helping longstanding members to see that their young people had useful gifts and could contribute to their faith community. The church began to invite young people to lead prayer, read scripture and help with worship to increase the visibility and involvement of other generations.
“We started with simple things that students were always willing to do, but never asked to do,” Jung says. “The older generations began to see that the youth wanted to be part of the church instead of just sitting quietly in the back.”
For young people, the invitation to lead worship was empowering. While nothing programmatic was implemented, First Baptist helped young people to see themselves as the church’s present, rather than feeling that they had to wait to become adults to take part in a community. Older members liked the new leadership, too.
Four years later, First Baptist still has not implemented a revolutionary new youth ministry, but their church is growing younger every day. Relying on the natural progression of adults recognizing youth in leadership to build community has made a noticeable difference in the congregation. Jung has noticed that Wednesday night meals, which used to be devoid of anyone under the age of 50, have now grown to an even mix of young families and longstanding church members. The church also invests in college interns from nearby Pfeiffer University and has seen much more interaction between older and younger members as a result — so much so that Jung has to coordinate a schedule for members volunteering to take college students out for lunch each Sunday after service.
Jung has learned from experience that fostering healthy community is more about changing the congregation’s perspective than changing the worship style to fit an idea of what young people might find engaging.
“When an older person can approach a student and thank them by name, it can totally change the culture of the church in a way that changing the traditional structure of the service does not,” Jung said. “It lets young people explore their call to lead and serve, and helps the congregation love one another as we are called to.”