Jesse Eckert is the new Coordinator for Young Life Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church in Van Wert. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)
Jesse Eckert is the new Coordinator for Young Life Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church in Van Wert. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)

VAN WERT – In recent years, many traditional churches have struggled to attract youth to their ministry. Recently, First Presbyterian Church in Van Wert hired Jesse Eckert as a Coordinator for Young Life Discipleship to help resolve this issue.

“Ultimately if a church has members that are all of the same age group, it won’t survive to the next generation,” said Eckert. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘hey kids, why don’t you come here.’ There has to be a lot of changes and a lot of directional things that go on inside the church, so we’re really going to emphasize discipleship.”

Eckert said that First Presbyterian has had success in the past attracting children to programs such as dances and bible school, but that often it is a struggle to get the children to return with their parents.

“To bring kids into this church we need to be able to make this church a place where young parents and young adults want to come,” said Eckert. “If we just bring in the kids, that’s fine, but unless the young parents of those kids want to come here, those kids aren’t going to come back. There’s a lot of program changes that we are making.”

Eckert hopes that by offering childcare for young adults and by offering programs targeted at young adults in their 20s and early 30s, the church will gain new, younger members.

“Youth need a place to go that’s not necessarily oriented on the youngest kids,” said Eckert. “Youth will be attracted to a place where they can find a mentor that can help guide them through life.”

Eckert noted that young adults in their 20s rarely have much in common, as far as their struggles, with adults in their 60s and that creating groups that focus on young adults can have a great impact.

“We’d also like to create a place where members are trained specifically to be able to identify with the problems of youth and give them practical solutions,” said Eckert. “Some of the well-meaning Christians that I ran into in college, if I ever had any kind of struggles, gave me the typical God-platitudes like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and as a youth, there really isn’t anything helpful in that kind of advice. So I really would like to specifically train members to be mentors to youth that come in.”

The goal is for the church to reach out to youth who may be struggling and need advice or just need someone to spend time with. Eckert plans to train members of the church to become mentors that can listen and help solve problems so that the youth never think about the generational gap between themselves and older members.

Eckert noted that one obstacle that many churches have when trying to attract younger generations is how youth think of religious establishments.

“We are a traditional church in theology and in style of worship. We have one service. We don’t have a praise band. We have a traditional service with an organ, and we have traditional liturgy,” said Eckert. “There are churches that attract large youth groups, but many churches that are of the traditional denominational structure are implementing a modern praise-team style service, and youth are often attracted to those. I think overall it’s the general conception of what the church is.”

He said a barrier for young people is how they may view the church as a place that is inclusionary, hateful, close-minded, or stuck in traditions. Changing this misconception is one of Eckert’s goals.

“From my experience as a young person who grew up in a local denominational church, there really wasn’t any of that, but it might be difficult to see unless you’ve been in the church,” said Eckert in regard to misconceptions of how the church is viewed. “I think the most balanced way to bring in kids and young adults is not to abandoned the obstacles that people have when coming to the church, but by showing them that their conceptions of those obstacles may not necessarily be true. Everyone here is very open, accepting, and very outreach oriented.”

Eckert, a Findlay native, spent his childhood in a Methodist church where he said he found a lot of stability. While he originally went to the Ohio State University for agriculture, he knew one day he would want to be a teacher. In early 2018, Eckert received his Master of Arts in Religious Education from Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary.

He was hired as the Coordinator for Young Life Discipleship at First Presbyterian in early June and said he was attracted to the idea of having a lot of freedom with the outreach program.

“There’s so much opportunity here,” said Eckert. “The freedom and the creativity of moving this church in a new direction is really what attracted this job to me specifically.”

Eckert has many ideas on how to attract youth and young adults, specifically with possible music events, bible studies, youth groups, after-school programs, and more.

“Hopefully, coming here soon, First Presbyterian will be a place where young people can’t stay away from,” said Eckert. “That’s the goal.”