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Showing Up: Who Invited Grandma to Youth Group?

During the season of Lent, ReFocus is excited to invite a number of guest authors to share their thoughts on ways that all generations can engage with Lent and worship, learn, and grow together during this season. Today’s guest blogger is Ryan Cagno who serves as the Director of NextGen Ministries for the Brethren in Christ Atlantic Conference. He is also an active member of a ReFocus Cohort and passionate about connecting generations for discipleship . Thank you, Ryan, for sharing this story with us this week; it is both challenging and heartwarming!

“Why’d they invite grandma to youth group?!”

That’s the response I imagined receiving from our youth kids the first night that Marion came tottering into the youth center. Rubber dodgeballs were whipping through the air, the boys playing Just Dance had descended into lewd gyrations, everything in sight was coated in a fine film of cheese puff dust. And here was Marion, eighty years young, looking right at home. (What was happening in that assisted living common room, anyway?)

 Yet there were no scoffs, no side eyes, no snickers, unless you count the smears of eponymous candy stuck to the couch cushions. Perhaps it was the tub of warm chocolate chip cookies Marion bore in her shaking arthritic hands; perhaps it was her even warmer smile – calm and generous and more than tolerant of our uncontrolled chaos. Whatever it was, before very long every kid in the youth center had, without any prompting, lined up to take a cookie and wrap Marion in a hug.

From that day forward Marion came every Monday evening, cookies in hand and ready for her receiving line. She gave great hugs, did Marion – just long enough and tight enough for you to know you were loved, by God and by her. And those kids… They needed that, perhaps more than they realized, and certainly more than they were able to communicate.

 Eventually Marion and a few other seasoned Jesus-followers began appearing at young adult Bible studies, not as teachers or gurus but as participants. She often described herself as a “lifelong learner”, and as she turned through the crinkling pages of her well-worn Bible and listened to the often-misguided conjectures of the twenty three-year old crowd, Marion, quite miraculously, assumed a posture of learning. She seemed delighted, challenged and only occasionally disturbed by their vacant ramblings and youthful candor. She waited a long time before offering her insights, and wasted no time in affirming theirs.

Marion spent the final nine years of her life pouring out all she had for the sake of these young people, and when I took the platform to deliver her funeral sermon, I was not surprised to see many of them dotted among the crowd. We were her living legacy, and not because of any spectacular words or feats of love; no, simply because of her humility and her hugs, her presence and her patience. And yes, her chocolate chip cookies.

In those days we often struggled to recruit “youth leaders”, and not for lack of available candidates. No, most often the adults in our church, when rejecting our invitations to be a part of youth events, cited intimidation or discomfort. “I don’t know what I would say to them. I don’t know anything about the fort nights and the tickety tocks. They don’t want me hanging around them, anyway.” None of these objections had ever occurred to Marion. She didn’t own a smart phone, and was roughly five generations removed from modern teen culture. No matter; they didn’t need another person in their life talking to them about “tickety tock” – the last thing any young person needs are an adult’s flailing attempts at relevancy. What they needed – what they still need – are adults that will simply show up.

They need adults who don’t imagine the task of investing in youth to be a niche role, but rather the responsibility of every person in the church. If Marion could do it – Marion who hadn’t gotten around to using CDs yet, let alone Spotify; Marion who could’ve been hospitalized by one errant dodgeball – then anybody could do it. Anybody, and everybody, should do it.

There was no formula, no playbook, no magic apart from the whatever was in the cookies. She showed up, she smiled. No doubt she felt her share of nervousness, uncertainty; no doubt she had no idea what we were talking about half the time. The point is, Marion wasn’t a special case. Or, she shouldn’t have been.

Woody Allen famously said, “Ninety percent of success in life is just showing up.” When it comes with showing young people the love of Jesus, I would suggest that percentage is pushing toward one hundred. We need not let fear – fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of discomfort, fear of young people themselves – keep us from showing up, from intentionally placing ourselves in their spaces and submitting ourselves to their cultural particulars, dodgeballs and cheese dust and all.

It’s been five years since she passed and I’m still thinking about Marion. When I delve into the well of my experiences, searching for tangible expressions of the way of Jesus, I often surface with memories of Marion. I can’t recall any specific words, any nugget of wisdom that may have radically redirected the course of my life. But I remember how she made me feel,

I remember the love, and when I’m doubtful or discouraged or despairing of the influence I am or am not having on those in my own life, I remember Marion. And I pray that with her example and the Spirit’s help I’ll keep showing up.


Ryan Cagno currently serves as Pastor of Discipleship at Harrisburg BIC Church and Director of Next Gen Ministries at Atlantic Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church. He is passionate about seeing the church come together across generations to disciple those who come behind us.


Have you ever been to an eye doctor and they flip different lenses in front of your eyes and say, “Better or worse?” on repeat. And finally you land on a set of lenses that helps the whole world become clearer and once you’ve seen it, you’ll never go back?

The ReFocus Ministry cohorts provide an experience like that; a new lens through which to see the world of church and ministry, one that answers our call to make disciples. 12-weeks of training, 1 year of coaching, and a lifetime of ReFocus resources. Ready to learn more? (ReFocus Ministry Cohort tab) or email


Vacation Bible School is often one of the highlights of the church year. It’s fun! It’s loud! It’s got snacks! But over the years, more and more churches have been wondering, “Has VBS run its course? Is it effective? Are we reaching our community?”

Let’s imagine a different kind of VBS.

Imagine the entire family moving through a faith experience together; playing games, building crafts, maybe even a short parent training on faith formation at home… all happening at one of your cherished church events – VBS!!

Now imagine a tool that helps make it all possible. Welcome to the Family VBS Curriculum Adapter!

This resource will go LIVE on Thursday, February 1, 2024. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for ways to purchase!

About the Founder of ReFocus Ministry

Christina Embree is the founder and director of ReFocus Ministry. She holds a masters in ministry focused on Children, Youth, and Family Ministry and a doctorate in spiritual formation with a focus on age segregation and intergenerational ministry. In addition to coaching churches of multiple denominations and traditions all around the globe, Christina serves as the Minister of Generational Discipleship for the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ and as a pastor at Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. She is widely recognized as a speaker and author in the areas of generational discipleship, intergenerational ministry, and family ministry. As the mother of three children, she is familiar with the challenges of faith at home and pastoral ministry. She along with her husband Luke share a love for the church, their community, and the global work of peace and restoration through Jesus.

Interested in having Christina visit your church, speak at your conference, or coach your team? Christina speaks on a wide range of topics related to children, youth, and family ministry with a unique focus on connecting generations for discipleship within your church. Her personalized approach allows you to pinpoint the needs of your community and gain the insight that you are looking for. Whether this is a volunteer team training and pastoral staff meeting or a ministerial conference, her experience and knowledge will help you determine the next step forward in creating lifelong disciples.

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