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Aug4WedKemptville’s gen-Z ministry model—by the youth, for the youth. August 4, 2021 by Kristin Ostensen
While her official title is children and youth co-ordinator at The Salvation Army’s Kemptville Church, Ont., it’s hard to pin down exactly what Emma Wong does. She does event planning, pastoral care and mentoring. She’s a photographer, designer and video editor, managing a popular Instagram account and a TikTok channel.
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At 22 years old, she is bursting with energy and ideas—not unlike the generation-Z youth she leads.
Wong has been leading the youth group at Kemptville since she graduated from high school four years ago. At the time, Kemptville Church, where her parents are corps leaders, was small, and the youth group consisted of Wong and her siblings, plus a few of their friends. Since then, the group has grown significantly and before the pandemic hit, youth events averaged around 20 to 25 attendees.
The Kemptville youth group is not very traditional in its approach—what their ministry looks like changes from day to day, and week to week. “Gen Z is all about trends, so we try to keep up with them and utilize them,” says Wong.
Events run the gamut from a skating and campfire night at the Wongs’ backyard rink, to a thrift store fashion show, to a “puppies in the park” gathering.
“It’s not like a ‘come in, sit down, be quiet, this is what we’re going to do’ kind of thing,” Wong says. “It’s more like a party that the youth are bringing their friends to.
“We keep the focus on Jesus, but we make sure that we’re doing it in ways so that when new kids come in, they can feel relaxed and are able to enjoy the environment.”
While Wong is the group’s leader, a lot of the time, she’s not running the show. The youth are.
“Emma will message us with ideas for things to do and ask for our opinions,” says Holly Ongaro, 14. “Or we can throw in a suggestion of our own if we have something fun in mind.
“I think it’s important that we get to share our opinions,” she adds. “I feel like I have a say in what we’re doing, and so I want to go there more.”
Along with day-to-day input, the youth group team also asks the kids for their thoughts at the end of each year. “We ask them, what was your favourite youth event? What would you want to do again? What do you absolutely not want to do again?” says Wong. “We have goals in terms of where we want our youth ministry to go and what we want them to learn, but a lot of our inspiration comes from chatting with them.”
Many events, such as a photo shoot for the Army’s thrift store, draw on the existing skills and interests of the group.
“We had some students come to the church who work for a modelling agency, so we asked them, ‘Would you guys ever want to model for the thrift store?’ and we also had some kids who were interested in photography,” says Wong. “It was super fun. The parents are happy because they get cute photos of their kids, and the thrift store gets nice photos for Instagram.”
For outreach, there’s no better tool than the youth group’s Instagram account, @youthgroupinsights. “It’s kind of like our portfolio piece,” says Wong. “When our youth invite their friends, they usually send them a post from the youth account, so they can actually see what it’s like.”
Instagram was one of the reasons why Ongaro wanted to join the youth group.
“I would see them posting pictures and I thought, That looks so fun,” says Ongaro. “It seemed different, so I wanted to go.”
While Wong manages the account, many of the youth contribute content and are featured in the posts.
“They see a picture of themselves on the page, and then they share it so their friends see it, too, and that’s how they get connected,” Wong says.
But the account is not just for advertising the youth group—it’s an opportunity for the youth to be creative and have fun. Nikita Hopkins, 18, a member of the group who is also a co-op student at the church, contributes content for both Instagram and TikTok, a video-sharing social media platform. This past Valentine’s Day, she created a video about Christian pickup lines, which has been viewed more than 700 times.
Her favourite one?
“I just want you to know that I’m praying for you. No, like I’m praying for you,” she laughs.
“We do a lot of funny videos,” says Wong, “but we also do little devotionals, something that people can take away and think about.”
More recently, Hopkins did a short encouragement video. “We have been going through some tough times recently, and God has promised that he is always going to be with us, and be by our side,” she says.
On a social media platform that can often be superficial, @youthgroupinsights doesn’t avoid serious issues. “We get a lot of engagement on the heavy topics—sexuality, dealing with divorce, mental health, and things like that,” says Wong. “Those posts have helped us a lot, too, to understand where our youth are at and what types of things they are engaging with, struggling with, or needing more help with.”
The Kemptville youth group may look different from other ministries, but it’s all in the service of a greater mission: helping the kids build relationships with God and each other.
With gen Z, who are often skeptical or agnostic about religion, that means re-introducing them to God.
“A lot of them come in with preconceived ideas of who God is, and what churches and The Salvation Army are, so we have to break it down with them,” says Wong. “We talk about having a relationship with God, and that it’s not all about the dos and don’ts. Just connect with God, and he’ll straighten you out later.
“It’s not so much pressure on the kids to make a commitment,” she continues. “It’s a gradual relationship and decision for them.”
“I feel closer to God when I’m there because I can connect with God through singing,” says Ongaro. “I feel like I can get really loud because there’s other people around who are singing, too, and it feels good.”
Hopkins actually lives in Ottawa, where she attends the Army’s Barrhaven Church, but makes the 30-45 minute journey to Kemptville as often as she can, for the spiritual and social connection.
“Most of my friends don’t have a connection with Christianity, so seeing a bunch of people who have the same beliefs as you is refreshing,” says Hopkins. “The whole community is awesome in Kemptville.”
Ongaro agrees. “Everybody’s so nice—they’re not going to exclude you, they’re not going to push you away,” she says.
“It’s always been really important to us to have a strong community,” says Wong. “This should be a place where everyone’s family, everyone knows each other and loves each other.”
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