At just about 100 years old – the point when many aging churches end their natural life cycle by closing their doors – Bakersfield Church of the Nazarene, in California, is drawing in a new generation of teenagers from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Donabel Martin is the outreach and young adult pastor, as well as an interim youth pastor. She and her lead pastors and the congregation have tried to create a foundation for the church based on the concept of being good neighbors. Bakersfield First, which has an average attendance of about 200, has developed both long-term programs and short events to reach them.
“Our pastors are preaching what it means for our church to be open,” she said.
One program that has impacted a wide variety of people is Celebrate Recovery, a program which brings the community and the local church together to support each other in becoming free of substance abuse, addiction and life's hurts, habits and hang-ups.
A younger teen who attends the program with her mother was recently connected to the youth group. Over time, more and more teens accompanying their parents in Celebrate Recovery have joined the church’s youth group, as well. It was difficult at first for teens from various backgrounds to mingle and mix well, but after some time, relationships were built. It has changed the DNA of youth ministry at Bakersfield First as a whole.
“We are starting to see youth ministry transferring from ‘me, me, me’ to ‘us,’ being open to everyone. Change is really happening on both sides,” Martin said.
New teens are feeling more welcome and are attending more often, and teens already at the church are learning to accept people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
Another way the teens and leaders at Bakersfield First have reached out to the community has been through athletics, primarily basketball. Teens come to play on the court at the church, and slowly, build relationships with church members. These teens have become part of the fabric of this church.
This fall, the church held a fall party for the neighborhood with bounce houses, food, games, a “trunk or treat” (decorated cars, with candy in the trunks to distribute to children) and the invitation for children to attend in costumes. More than 800 people attended.
“When I was at the ‘trunk or treat,’ you couldn’t tell who was who or who ‘belonged’ with whom. We were all there to be the community together,” Martin said. “Not all stories are celebration stories, but even in that, I know God is working.”