Youth pastor shook things up, and stuck around to lead

By Jason Byassee, Special Contributor…

Vern Collins appeared at Boone United Methodist Church as a be-sandled, multiple-earringed recent graduate from our town’s college, Appalachian State, where, Vern admits, he was far more interested in fly-fishing than in studying. Vern was a shock to the system for a staid, high-steeple, university church like ours, where the only music on Sundays came through organ pipes. But our youth group was in a sorry state, and we were willing to try something radical.

Jason Byasse

Careful what you wish for.

Vern grew up in faith with Young Life in Greensboro. That parachurch organization places a premium on one-on-one relationships for discipleship with students and on small groups dedicated to the pursuit of holiness. Vern had no idea that the early Methodists invented the small group as a means of pursuing radical discipleship, pushing one’s fellow believers deeper in holiness, “watching over one another in love,” as we Methodists often put it back in the 18th century. He was just instituting what had worked to help him grow in Christ as a youngster. Our church’s courage to hire someone who didn’t fit a buttoned-up profile reintroduced part of the Methodist DNA that we had lost.

Vern quickly realized he could put together a bang-up program for Sunday night. But the problem with entertainment-based youth ministry is the pressure to top the previous week’s showing. “That was awesome. What are we doing next week?” students would ask. And Vern and his volunteers would wear themselves out trying to outdo themselves week after week.

Why not scrap the format altogether? Have little or no programming on Sunday nights but meet in small groups week after week? That’s what Vern has done. He trained small group leaders and then began gathering students into small groups Sunday after Sunday. Students now enter for dinner and games before breaking up into small groups, with communal worship occasionally punctuating the time. “It especially helped us reach students on the fringes,” Vern says.

Under the old programming system youth could come and go without any face time with anyone from the church. Now he can be sure anyone who comes through the doors spends quality time with a leader trained, equipped and set loose for ministry by Boone UMC.

Vern tells a story that sticks with me about his early days at our church. He started inviting students to come to church for breakfast and Bible study at our old church building in downtown Boone. The only room big enough for the students to come was an old-fashioned “parlor”—the sort of room, as Marilynne Robinson says, that seems to exist only to contain objects that children will be forbidden to touch. It had white carpet. Don’t you know it wasn’t long before there were orange juice stains appearing on that carpet. So Vern and his volunteers moved furniture on top of the first stain. Another appeared. Another furniture move.

“Then eventually we had to build another church,” Vern jokes. We moved into that new building in 2000.

Most recently Vern has been the face behind our church’s newest worship service—an “emerging style” service in our church’s gym called Crossroads. He preaches weekly and leads his own congregation, where most of our students, young people and others most disaffected with the church, gather. One early preaching series included interviews with those who dislike or even hate the church, explaining why. The point is to welcome questions, agitations, uncertainties and general unchurchiness in the hopes of fostering earnest faithfulness. Our church’s missions coordinator came out of that service.

What started as an experiment is now a leading edge for our whole community.

Those are just some of Vern’s gifts. Not bad for a kid who set off every alarm bell we had when he first turned up in 1998. That kid is now our longest-serving staff member by far, the source of communal memory and wisdom among our ministers.

Dr. Byassee is senior minister at Boone UMC in Boone, N.C. This essay first appeared at www.faithandleadership.com.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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