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A community youth group that works

Teens thrive when churches join together

By Eugenia Johnson-Smith | Presbyterians Today

One Locally Grown weekly activity is a favorite of the teens: Each person writes an encouraging message to every member. The compilation is then framed as a keepsake. Sara Busick

Like many pastors, the Rev. Mary Seeger Weese of Midway Presbyterian Church in Midway, Kentucky, had a vision of starting a youth ministry. And, like many pastors, she realized she couldn’t do it alone.

“The major thing I had to come to grips with was that a youth ministry wasn’t meant for one church,” she said. “It would be something to make followers of Jesus, not something to make more Presbyterians.”

Midway member Bud Ratliff suggested that the pastor include all churches in the area in talks concerning the community’s youth. Many of these churches, he said, have a longstanding relationship of working, worshiping and serving the community together. Many also face the same struggle as to how to best serve youth when they do not attend the same church as their friends, or perhaps any church at all.

In the summer of 2015, with a personal invitation from Midway member John Davis, clergy from varying denominations sat down together. By the time the meeting was over, seeds for a new cooperative youth group — Locally Grown — were planted.

According to the group’s website, this name was chosen because “all of us are shaped by our local community — the family, friends, neighbors and mentors who surround us every day. … As with anything that’s growing, conditions are everything! … We will strive to create the best possible environment for young people to grow in their faith — right here, right now. By fostering this development today, it is our hope that we are planting the seeds for an authentic faith that will continue to grow for a lifetime.”

Five years later, the youth group, a ministry of Midway Presbyterian, Midway United Methodist, Midway Christian, Historic Second Christian, St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal and Midway Baptist, has become deeply rooted in its community.

The goal of the diverse group is threefold: to boost the existing youth ministries, to assist churches that don’t currently have a youth ministry and to reach out to youth who don’t attend church.

“We’re involved because it’s needed,” said the Rev. Heather McColl of Midway Christian. “Youth need a place to connect and explore their faith.”

The program, open to youth in grades 6-12, has served 77 youth since its inception. Youth gather weekly at Midway Presbyterian, then they walk to either another church or public location for their actual meeting or to participate in an activity or service project. The weekly meetings include the pastors from the participating churches, providing the teens an opportunity to understand other expressions of faith.

The youth visit Historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, a traditionally African American church in Midway, Ky. This was just one of many churches in the area that the teens visited, being welcomed and invited to ask the ministers questions without fear of being judged. Sara Busick

Midway Presbyterian, Midway Christian and Midway United Methodist currently fund the programming, with the remaining churches providing donations.

Locally Grown has not only been a church’s answer to how to best serve youth, it has also been a place of refuge and hope for teens.

Emily, 16, lives near Midway and has been involved with Locally Grown for four years. She says that Locally Grown has taught her lifelong lessons about friendship and love.

“It will always be something I look back on as a ‘positive’ part of my youth,” she said. “Locally Grown has given me a safe space to explore God’s love without fear of judgment. It is a fun place to learn about God and build long-lasting relationships.”

Emily is proof that community youth ministries like Locally Grown can work and can be replicated in other communities.

“It is important going into this type ministry with open hands and open hearts,” said Sara Busick, the co-director of Locally Grown who, with her husband, Lee, helped plant its early seeds. “It’s also important to view this program as a mission and its leaders as missionaries in your community.”

And being flexible helps as well, Busick says, adding, “We would often adjust the topics and teaching style to align with the personalities, ages and experiences of our group.”

“This is a truly collaborative and sacrificial ministry that exists for the spiritual development and support of teenagers. It’s a beautiful and miraculous thing to be part of,” Busick said.

Eugenia Johnson-Smith is a published author, coach and motivational speaker who lives in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lexington and has seen firsthand the excitement of the Locally Grown youth group.

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