Attracting young people is a challenge every congregation faces, but the Rev. Dr. Simon Muwowo thinks he has the answer: engaging youth using an outside-in approach
“Our engagement with the youth is not aimed at locating Christ in their hearts, but in their midst,” he explains. “Our ministry with the youth is not within the four corners of the church building, but outside.”
As minister for the Burin Pastoral Charge in Newfoundland, Muwowo helped start Coffee House Two 52. The group, open to anyone between the ages of 12 to 25, meets once a month to talk, share food and enjoy live music.
He explained that the word “Coffee” is actually an acronym, standing for “Christ Offers Forgiveness to Everyone Everywhere.” And the “Two 52” is derived from Luke, 2:52, which says: “Jesus grow in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people.”
After $7,500 was received from the Seeds of Hope program offered by the United Church of Canada Foundation, the Coffee House Two 52 program was launched in September of 2016. Most of the grant money helped to purchase youth-friendly musical instruments, with the rest used to bring in a youth band from Tyndale University to entertain the 25 youths who turned out for the first meeting. The next meeting attracted 45 youths, who were entertained by a band from St. John’s.
“We have been featuring local artists as well,” says Muwowo. “We want an approach that is friendly to youth.”
Membership in this group is by invitation only, and can only come from other group members. “You cannot be invited in by an adult,” he says.
Each Coffee House starts with music, then participants break into roundtables, to discuss issues facing youth. At one meeting they discussed the Fentanyl crisis now gripping Newfoundland. The dangers of alcohol were discussed at another, with a recovered alcoholic who belongs to the church talking to group members about his struggle with the bottle.
“Through our relationships and stories, we have the capacity to shape the identity of the young people to knowing Christ,” says Muwowo. “You cannot communicate the Gospel to a young person as you would an adult. It has to be done in a culture and context that is relevant to them.”
Coffee House participants say this approach really works.
“It is a really fun time, says Chantal Cheeseman. “It is great to sit around the table, and enjoy food and music. We really enjoy ourselves”
“I like the coffeehouse because it is a really healthy environment,” adds Zoë Smith. “It offers really spiritual music, but the type that older people wouldn’t listen to in church.”
As well as offering a venue for socialization, the Coffee House also encourages youth to develop interpersonal skills, which can aid them in all aspects of their lives.
“I used to have really bad anxiety in my Grade 10 year,” explained Candice Inkpen. “I couldn’t stick with my classes, and I was having a really bad time.”
Thanks to the discussions at the Coffee House, aided by her work as a Sunday school teacher, she no longer experiences anxiety.
“Talking in front of this group has helped me so much,” she said. “I am now more comfortable in class, and in any social situation.”
Young people from other denominations — or with no religious background — have been coming out to the Coffee House. Intrigued with the conversations they are engaged in there, some of them are also starting to attend regular church services on Sunday.
“It is bringing people back to church,” says Muwowo. “We have testimonies from other churches that they have seen a rise in young people coming to their services.”
He expects the program to expand and flourish, with Newfoundland and Labrador Conference promising funding for three years, with the expectation that the group will be self-sufficient by 2019.
For more information about the Coffee House and its outreach to youth, contact Muwowo at smuwowo2002 [at] yahoo.com.
—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.
New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.