A Conversation with Phyllis Fox

Meet Our Contributing Editors: This month we talk with Phyllis Fox, director of church relations and Youth in Ministry at Milligan College in Tennessee, about young leaders, broken kids, and the future of the church.

12_FOX_JNInterview by Jennifer Johnson

You wear a couple of hats—let’s start with your role in church relations at Milligan.
Church relations is an opportunity for us to be in touch with the churches that support the mission of the college. The money these churches give totally supports student scholarships, so my role is enhancing those relationships, and even more importantly, to serve those churches in significant ways. We plan workshops and training, and we send Youth in Ministry and Milligan teams to do special events and work with their youth ministers.


You led right into my next question: what’s Youth in Ministry all about?
Youth in Ministry began 11 years ago with a grant from the Lilly Endowment in Indiana, which had done research in the late ’90s showing that less than 5 percent of the students entering seminary at that point were under 30 years old. They recognized a huge need—the “graying” of our senior ministers was getting critical and we needed to interest younger generations in vocational ministry.

Youth in Ministry’s purpose is very much in line with Milligan’s—to encourage young people to become student leaders, recognize God’s call on their life, and seek ways to grow his kingdom. We accomplish this in a variety of ways. We do workshops at teen conventions like the Indiana Youth Convention or the Tennessee Teen Convention. I take student teams and an experienced youth minister or staff person to facilitate those. We also hold youth rallies and retreats. For instance, some churches have student retreats and want a college team to be counselors.


And then of course you have your big event each summer.
Right, the Youth in Ministry Student Leadership Conference is a one-week event in July here on campus. We started very small 11 years ago with 32 students; this last summer we had 112 students from 55 different churches and 13 different states. We’re thrilled with what’s happening because we’re growing even though this was never meant to be a conference for an entire youth group—this is an event for the young student leader. Sometimes those students will come as a group, but half of the kids come totally on their own, not knowing a soul, because they want to deepen their relationship with Christ and learn how to be good leaders in their churches and schools. These are incredible young people and we teach them a lot, but they also minister to each other. They discover there are other students like them who really care about their relationship with Christ and want to go deeper.

The kids who came to us the first few years are now serving full-time in churches or as missionaries, and they’re coming back to us; this year two were our evening speakers, and many of the students are now youth ministers bringing their own youth groups.

The counselors for the event are Milligan students known for their walk with Christ. The high school students get to see the kids who are one step ahead of them in college. Both the high school students and the Milligan students get to see people who are already out there serving and making a difference. We’re just so blessed to see how it’s evolved.


Eleven years ago cell phones were not a big deal, there were no smartphones, Facebook didn’t exist. Different things were trending and trendy in the church. What kinds of changes have you seen in the kids themselves?
The one thing I’ve noticed that surprises me is how broken and hurting these kids are, even though many are from two-parent homes and their fathers are ministers or church elders.

During the annual conference we practice the spiritual disciplines. When we get to confession, some of the kids talk about cutting, or having eating disorders, or other issues. You think the kids who are in church every Sunday are not the ones with these issues, but they’re part of a broken world and many times they are broken, too.


It’s going to be very interesting—and scary—to see what happens over the next couple of decades.
These are issues we have to address because the church has lost a generation of students. But there are some things we can do as a church to help students remain faithful to God and to the church through young adulthood.

At the end of September we held a “Faith That Sticks” one-day event, based on the ideas of “Sticky Faith” coming out of the Fuller Youth Institute [Pasadena, California]. We partnered with First Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, to bring in Dr. Chap Clark from Fuller [Theological Seminary].

The premise of Sticky Faith is that for many years the way we did youth ministry was to separate the youth group from the rest of the church. We had good intentions—give them their own space, give them their own minister, and let them go off and do their own thing.

But current research says at least half of our teens will walk away from the church when they go to college, and I think this separation is a big part of the reason. When our kids graduate high school they’ve had no interaction with the church family and they know no one outside the youth ministry. They don’t fit in youth group anymore, and there are very few relationships to bring them into the life of the church. So we’ve got to be intentional about involving the young kids, the older kids, and the adults of every age in worshipping together, serving together, and learning together. We need to invest in each other’s lives, because there’s so much we can learn from each other.


Why do you think so many churches don’t create more opportunities for the different generations to be together?
Part of the problem is parents and ministers don’t realize the need, because we grew up in youth ministries under the old model and it was fun and good and it worked for us. We’re still in the church, right? Youth ministers get push back on this all the time, even in “trendy” churches. But it’s a matter of education, I think.


I agree, but I think many times the push back comes because it’s too much work. To plan an entire experience with the knowledge that people of all ages and attention spans will be participating together requires a lot of thought and effort. Sometimes we may think the current way works, but sometimes, perhaps, we realize it doesn’t but don’t want to do the heavy lifting this kind of change requires.

You could be right. I’ve seen more church programs lately where the kids are with adults in worship and kids and teens and middle schoolers are with adults on mission trips. But I still think we’ve got a long way to go. And, pragmatically speaking, when these young people leave the church, their tithes are also leaving. The young adults with earning potential are leaving the church, and then we wonder why we can’t meet our budget. If nothing else will get our attention, the budget will!


What are you excited about in the coming year?
We’re making some new efforts in church relations to get more Milligan students involved in area churches. At the beginning of the school year we partnered with several area churches with active college ministries to make them more effective at connecting with incoming students. We added some tools on our website for students to find these ministries and to see how they can serve. The students coming to Milligan are often coming from good youth groups and they’re looking for a place to serve because that’s what they’re used to doing. So we want to get them plugged in.

We also want them to understand we truly miss them when they’re not there—I attend Grandview Christian and there is just a different energy and vibrancy when the college students are back worshipping and serving with us during the school year. And the high school students need to see them as role models. There’s so much they can give back, not to mention the blessings they will get themselves.

Helping students become leaders is my great passion. This may be connecting Milligan students to a children’s ministry or worship ministry at a local church, or encouraging a teenager to discover his gifts and consider vocational service, or investing in our youth ministers for the hard work they do. It takes many forms, but I love it all.


Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania. 

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