What’s Working: First Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale

 In Religion & Spirituality, What's Working

This post marks the beginning of a series to showcase our learnings in a mulit-year campaign titled What’s Working, a Lilly Endowment Inc.– supported project to discover how faith-based organizations are working to engage Gen Z. Over the course of 2024, we’ll visit organizations across the country that are revamping traditional methods and innovating new ways to connect with and support the flourishing of young people. The first in our series features First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale.

On a Wednesday in early April, heat and humidity declared summer had arrived early in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

Yet, the heat didn’t deter 20 young people from taking the field across from First Presbyterian Church for an intense and spirited game of Ultimate Frisbee. This was no random pickup game, but the result of a coordinated effort from First Presbyterian’s youth and young adult ministry. Many of the young people who played on this hot day were repeat visitors to Good Game (GG), a Wednesday evening game night where young people learn, engage, and grow through sports and games.

Jon Bock, First Presbyterian’s Director of Young Adult Ministries, led the event; his warm demeanor and natural athleticism shone as he played alongside the youth. Although Director of Youth and College Ministries Chandler Gelb said earlier in the day that she wasn’t “wildly athletic,” when it came time for the game to start, she jumped in with confidence and enthusiasm. 

 One of our research associates Hannah Evans and I watched from the sidelines (after declining a genuine invitation to come and play) as the players were given a quick tutorial on the rules of the game, assigned to a team, and went immediately into game mode. It was the culmination of a full day of interviews and observation on our first site visit for What’s Working, a three-year project where we’re exploring what’s working to engage young people in faith-based organizations.

Informed by our previous survey of youth ministry leaders and those they serve, we set out to explore five themes in these site visits. Here, we wanted to learn how First Presbyterianwho was leading a thriving youth programwas leaning into creating fun, fostering leadership and purpose, cultivating inclusion and belonging, nurturing intergenerational relationships, and being flexible along the way. 

While GG provided a way to connect with young people through play, the offering was only one part of a broader and more intentional effort to engage youth. Chandler and Jon intentionally cocreate with students, using direct feedback from them to shape Good Game and other experiences in the program. They intentionally use their space and the activities they offer to foster an authentic community where all are welcomed and valued. Yet, equally important is the way Chandler and Jon offer themselvesconsistently showing up as their authentic selves transforms their presence into a safe and nonjudgmental space for the young people they serve. 

And it was clear that their approach to creating community was in full effect as Chandler and Jon effortlessly made their way around GG, calling students by name, delivering a little good-natured ribbing in the way a favorite teacher does, and quickly giving praise for a solid pass or great teamwork. They had experienced challenges in getting girls to participate in GG, so Chandler and Jon made sure to encourage and praise the three girls who came to play, holding their own alongside their teenage-boy teammates. There were no bad attitudes. No one complained. Everyone gave their best and laughed a lot in the process.  

The end of the game was not the end of the event. After playing, everyone sat in a circle to debrief on the game and discuss what they learned about themselves. Chandler shared her excitement about scoring one goal, and the other young people genuinely celebrated her accomplishment. Jon spoke up about the frustration and competitive energy coming up for him during the game, and that he wanted to work more on genuinely celebrating and encouraging people from both teams (which was impressive considering he was clearly already very skilled at this). He also noted how he’s seen the group improve in their ability to encourage one another instead of breaking down into fights. As each person shared, they offered a level of honesty and openness that made it clear they felt comfortable being real and unfiltered. Jon and Chandler responded with affirmation, honesty, and, when appropriate, constructive feedback. Not only did they model emotional maturity Jon and Chandler also held space for young people to practice it themselves. Part of the purpose of GG is to ensure that the literal fun and games produce character development.  

The youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church embodies all five themes we know contribute to effective and impactful engagement with young people.

This site visit was made possible through a grant from Lilly Foundation, Inc. Watch for future blogs recapping our site visits that show What’s Working.

To learn more about First Presbyterian’s approach to ministry in their own words, watch the video below. 

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