Christ Church Pastor Helps Youth Ministry Flourish
By Kim Piekos
Syler Thomas never intended to be a youth pastor. But, 23 years after he started, he loves his role at Christ Church in Lake Forest.
Thomas was finishing up his Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, intending to do “real ministry,” when he was asked to be a worship leader for Christ Church’s Senior High Youth Group (SHYG). That quickly transitioned into a full-time job as the youth pastor.
“There’s a lot of beauty in investing in kids this way, to put them on the trajectory to being the best versions of themselves early on," says Syler Thomas of Christ Church. “I thought I was way too advanced for youth ministry,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Many people use that position as a steppingstone to full-time pastor positions at churches. “Little did I know how well I would connect with the kids, and how much they would teach me. They are funny, intelligent and deep. I fell in love with it and stayed.”
With Thomas at the helm all these years, Christ Church’s youth ministry has flourished. In Thomas’ first year in 1998, the program drew 25 teens. The next year, the number doubled. Since then, nearly 100 teens gather on Sunday evenings year-round. His leadership of this ministry has impacted many Lake Forest teens over the years, as well as those from nearby communities. “Youth pastor turnover hinders growth,” he explained. “Being here so long, I’ve been able to provide a structure that supports and values the deep relationships that develop student leadership and involvement.”
And student leadership is evident everywhere. When you step into the church’s hip upstairs space, you are greeted by upbeat, contemporary Christian music being played by a student-led worship band. Juniors and seniors are invited to join the Student Ministry Team (SMT), which fosters discussions of faith and develops student leaders within the ministry. “These kids don’t show up to be served.” Thomas said. “We encourage them to own their youth ministry and serve others. They advise us of changes they think need to be made and are leaders among their peers.”
Thomas credits the ministry’s annual domestic and international mission trips, as well as biannual retreats, with retaining students’ interest in the program. Students have travelled as close as Ohio and as far as India, the Dominican Republic and Mexico on these mission trips. “The place we’re going to is not what matters,” Thomas pointed out. “What makes a difference is getting students outside the bubble of their ordinary lives, immersing them in cultures that live life differently and seeing how God is at work in those places.”
Thomas notes the cognitive dissonance that students often experience on these trips. “Oftentimes, the people the students are serving are poor. They get to know them as they build them homes. They see how much joy and contentment they have and find themselves thinking ‘Hang on! I have plenty of money and I’m unhappy. Yet these people have nothing, and they seem very happy and content.’ It makes them reflect on what matters most.”
A big challenge on mission trips: getting students to hand over their phones. Thomas is heartened to watch them struggle with this at the beginning and find freedom in it by the end of the trip. “They learn that there are benefits to living life with less technology,” he noted.
Thomas’s ministry is supported by 15-20 volunteer leaders from Trinity International University in Deerfield and some SHYG alumni who help lead small groups divided up by school year and gender. “The real ministry happens with these volunteer leaders,” Thomas said. “They attend the students’ plays and sporting events, have coffee with them and text during the week. The kids feel supported, cared about and part of a group. It just works.”
Thomas is well-respected nationally in the youth ministry field. He has written two books: Game Plan: Practical Wisdom for the College Experience and Small Group Leader’s Quick Guide to (Almost) Everything, and he has co-authored The Jesus Creed for Students: Loving God, Loving Others. And he is so glad he decided to pursue his calling. “Youth ministry is kind of like time travel – you have the opportunity to preemptively help change students into healthy versions of themselves before they are adults who need fixing,” he said. “There’s a lot of beauty in investing in kids this way, to put them on the trajectory to being the best versions of themselves early on.”