In the following interview, Leon Jameson, Director of Christian Education for Immanuel Lutheran Church, St. Charles, Missouri, offers a peek at Immanuel’s Freshman Underground, a new concept aimed at helping freshman make the jump from the Jr. High to High School youth ministry program.

thESource: What is the Freshman Underground? How does it operate?

LJ: The Freshman Underground is an intentional approach to provide a bridge for junior high confirmation groups into the high school youth group. We wanted to keep the small group feel of our junior high program and yet integrate the youth into the high school program. Underground helps keep the youth in their comfort zone, yet nurtures and encourages them into involvement in the larger youth group.

thESource: Why did you create the Underground? Why do you feel freshmen need their own programming?

LJ: We saw the need for this because our freshmen were nervous about participating with the “big kids” in the large youth group programming. Freshmen are self-focused and self-conscious, in a sense, and our congregation’s youth program is very big. They were feeling lost in the crowd.

Our goal is to keep kids from straying away after confirmation because they’ve lost their group and their comfort zones, and because the older kids can be intimidating. The Underground provides freshmen the small group experience they were used to from junior high while giving them the distance they need to digest the larger picture of things. The freshmen still participate in all our high school youth programming, and they get plenty of older kid interaction time, but they need something of their own, too.

The freshmen seem to be responding. When we implemented the Underground, youth I hadn’t seen in what felt like ages all of a sudden started showing up again.

thESource: Why do you call it the Freshman Underground?

LJ: Oh, that’s kind of silly, really. It’s the Underground because we always meet in people’s basements. The kids get a kick out of the name.

thESource:  If you’re hosting in their basements, the parents must have a huge impact on your programming.

LJ: The parents are very involved in the Underground. Our parents are awesome!

Underground is very obviously a youth ministry driven program, but it’s often piloted by the parents. Parents can be involved on many levels, from simply providing the space to using our resources to design and steer the entire evening. There are always two families (two sets of parents) at all the Undergrounds.

thESource:  What do you do at your meetings?

LJ: Each event is about three hours long, and the focus is fellowship. We start each session with general group building activities that the youth feel comfortable doing. In February, we’re letting them ice all sorts of Valentines cookies to take home. We’ve found that freshmen are ultra-sensitive about being in a new place, so the group building is designed to give them something tactile to do and offer them the opportunity to chat and laugh together.

After group building, we do a half-hour Bible study that fits in with the theme for the night. Then we transition into movie and snack time.

Movies are our focus this year. We figured the youth see so many movies on their own time, why not try to snag them into devotion using something they love? So, after our Bible study time, we pop in a movie and let the kids relax and eat and have fun together.

The thing that’s great about Underground is that the recreation option can easily be changed. We’re thinking of substituting a pool night for the movie this summer. This is the first year we’ve tried this, so it’s constantly growing and being evaluated.

thESource:  Are the older youth involved in the Underground in any way?

LJ: Not yet. We’ll probably move that direction as the program gains speed by bringing older youth leaders in sometimes to pump up other areas of the youth ministry program.

But we’re not in any real hurry to bring the older kids into the Underground. The freshmen get plenty of time with them in our other programming and activities. The Underground is really a place for the freshmen to focus on the issues and concerns that are specific to their age group–concerns that are different from those of our juniors and seniors.

thESource: How often do you host the Underground?

LJ: The youth would love it if we hosted one every week!

We originally planned to hold an Underground meeting once every quarter. The youth asked if we could do it more often, so we moved to a semi-monthly format. We’ll have seven Underground meetings this year.

thESource is published on the Web by LCMS District and Congregational Services–Youth Ministry.  The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295; 1-800-248-1930; Editor: Gretchen M. Jameson; Assistant Editor: Dawn Cornelius-Gaunt; Layout: Gretchen M. Jameson. VOL. 2 NO. 4 February 2005.