As part of a new initiative centered on nurturing the faith of youth and young adults, Lilly Endowment Inc. has approved a $1.3 million grant to support the collaborative work of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). The five-year grant will enable the continuation and expansion of Generation Spark, a mentorship program that Hope College began in 2017.
Generation Spark is a mentoring paradigm. Following this model, local churches pair adults and young adults, who work together to address real world problems. Research has shown that young people who are mentored through Generation Spark are 70 percent more likely to stay connected to their local congregations.
What began as a pilot project with six churches—spearheaded by four college students and two staff members—is now being handed over to the RCA and CRCNA. In phase one, Generation Spark was supported through an initial three-year Lilly Endowment grant of nearly half a million dollars. Now in phase two, Generation Spark will be championed in both denominations by the ministry initiatives of Next Generation Engagement (RCA) and Faith Formation Ministries (CRCNA). This shift in ownership will enable the work of Generation Spark to be implemented in more congregations.
“We will be working together to help facilitate intergenerational relationships through mentoring in faith communities,” says Annalise Radcliffe, coordinator for RCA Next Generation Engagement. “We believe that intergenerational relationships truly lead to long lasting change in both the enrichment of faith communities [and] cities at large.”
At its core, Generation Spark is an intergenerational ministry strategy that pairs young adults (ages 16–24) with mentors (adults ages 45 and up). Through a one-on-one relationship, the student and the mentor work together to identify and solve a real life problem in their church or community. This model allows both partners to learn from each other, to make a difference in their church or community, and to develop skills in leadership, critical thinking, and problem solving. There is also an emphasis on calling, faith, and prayer.
By participating in Generation Spark, churches are given a research-based action plan that accomplishes two key outcomes: retaining youth in the life of the church and more fully integrating young people in the leadership of the church.
“I heard clear stories of how the Spirit worked through the Generation Spark model to encourage faith formation within several congregations,” says Chris Schoon, director for the CRCNA’s Faith Formation Ministries, recalling when Generation Spark founder Virgil Gulker first introduced him to the program in 2019. “I was particularly impressed with how both mentors and mentees talked about how their faith in God and their commitment to tangibly participating in the life of their congregations grew during this time.”
“These intergenerational relationships are not just important; they are essential for congregational wellness and the future of ministry,” adds Radcliffe. Through Generation Spark, the denominations “will come alongside congregations to create healthy patterns of listening, proper leadership transition, and renewed systems across all denominational structures.”
The number of young people leaving the church has long been a concern for both the CRCNA and the RCA. Generation Spark, Radcliffe and Schoon say, sustains young people in the church by helping them find a meaningful way to contribute and connect.
The goal for each of the next five years is to increase the number of congregations from the CRCNA and RCA participating in Generation Spark. This work includes listening sessions to gain feedback from past participants, training past participants to coach and walk alongside current participating churches, implementing more leadership development for emerging leaders, and hosting a yearly gathering to promote peer learning and discussion around best practices and key principles.
“As we anticipate Generation Spark becoming more accessible to congregations throughout our two denominations, I am hopeful for the ways that this initiative can help local church leaders usher youth and young adults more fully into the life and leadership of their congregations,” says Schoon. “I think the flexibility that is built into the Generation Spark model can help strengthen existing efforts for intergenerational mentoring, will encourage more intentional conversations about faith within congregations, and will help youth and young adults find their voice and place in the broader movement of God’s kingdom.
“We have seen God working to encourage youth ministry leaders in both denominations through other shared resourcing and networking opportunities and anticipate that we will see the same as Generation Spark rolls out,” he adds. “The church as a whole is stronger when we can collaborate with each other in these ways.”
Gratitude extends beyond the hope for better incorporating young people in the church and the opportunity for collaboration, for this continued work would not be possible without the groundwork already laid and the generous grant.
“We are grateful for the work of Virgil Gulker and the Generation Spark team for their innovation and development of phase one,” says Jill Ver Steeg, the RCA’s chief operating officer. “And we are eager to step into further sharpening the developed model to increase its impact. We are grateful to Lilly Endowment Inc. for this grant and for inviting us to imagine new possibilities for ministry.”