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Here’s one thing Joe Vacanti wants parents to know: Your children crave your attention.

“Kids want to know that they’re loved by their parents and that parents have invested time with them,” he says. “They want parents who give their attention fully to them when they are present, and who listen.”

Vacanti, 35, is a pharmacist-turned-pastor of high school ministries at the Chapel, in Getzville, one of the region’s megachurches. The Elma native graduated from Iroquois High School and University at Buffalo Pharmacy School. He quit his job at Wegmans in 2005, after four years as a pharmacist, to work full-time in youth ministry.

He and his wife, Kate – a former nurse works part-time running the Chapel’s global mission work – have three children. Kate also volunteers at an affiliated nonprofit, Let them Laugh Out Loud, which funds clean water wells in Sierra Leone.

He earns less than in his former job, and that’s OK. “The Chapel takes care of me and my family, and my food, and health insurance…,” he says, “and I love working for them. I’ve never thought twice about the money.”

Vacanti’s ministry is vibrant. It’s common for a couple of hundred teens to show up from 7 to 10 Wednesday nights at the Apex building on Hopkins Drive, a short drive from the church, to chat, hang out at the cafe and play some basketball.

“A youth ministry typically forms not to replace parenting but to partner with parents, because parents have to recognize at some point that their kids listen to other voices besides theirs,” he said. “We encourage parents, ‘Make sure you’re intentional with those voices, pick the right people to speak into your kids.’”

Tell us about your ministry.

It’s called MOVI, which means to move, so we’re trying to encourage all teenagers to move in a direction towards God. There’s four things we desire for teenagers to become: passionate about God; courageous to act and demonstrate Christ in all their relationships; to recognize that every teenager has a gift and God has given that gift to add value to the community and local churches; and lastly, we want to encourage every teenager to become a voice of hope. We gather on Wednesday nights and we talk about topics specifically geared toward teenagers and their faith: we have a series we do once a month called ‘Your Move.’ The heart behind it is we want kids to be courageous to act and demonstrate Christ, so we talk about parties, drinking, talking with people who may share different views than you do, proper usage of social media – basically any issue that deals with peer pressure.

You’ve created a MOVI app.

Yes, the desire for this app is to encourage teens in that movement toward God and to encourage teens to bring God to others. We have three tabs: students, leaders, parents. There’s a daily devotional. We have something called the ‘Gospel video.’ There’s tips on prayer, tips on the Bible. There’s a section called ‘I matter’ that talks about suicide, bullying, anger. We have a couple blog sites that parents can access that will help give them … information on teen culture, how to connect with your teens. It’s a free app. Link to the app here.

You often are part of the Sunday services at the church. Talk about your role.

I serve as a part of the music team and lead songs sung congregationally. I also help to facilitate our East Worship Center, which is a more intimate worship center that we have. It seats about 215 people [compared to the main sanctuary, which seats 2,400]. We have cafe tables set up in there.

Who taught you to play the guitar?

I’ve never taken lessons. I was self-taught at 18. I didn’t want to wait until Sundays to sing the songs we were singing so I started picking up a guitar. I continue to learn because I play with other great musicians.

Do you have a favorite Christian band?

I really like Hillsong United, I like the Passion Artists, a collection of different musicians.

Talk about the various youth programs you oversee at the Chapel.

My context is high school ministry. We have about 200 students who come on a Wednesday night. We have an incredible team of people – about 50 volunteers and a few staff – who make up the team that serves our students and this community. The core of what we do is small group ministry, where you partner up a handful of teenagers with a mentor. Each year we take a journey that will include two weekend retreats and an end-of-the-year trip. This year, we’re taking some of our teenagers to do some work in Haiti, 45 people. We have a small group called Student Leadership that meets the second Sunday of every month.

Currently there are students who participate in our middle school Shine band and in our high school band. They play Wednesday nights, our high school ministry, and Sunday mornings our Shine ministry has two services. I also help facilitate a training program that we call Skool of Rock. We’ve been doing that eight or nine years now. We teach kids how to play congregationally in a church band.

Our teenagers are encouraged to go to church with their parents on Sundays and they’re encourage to serve on Sundays.

What do you think drives most kids these days?

I think it’s the same things that drove us. Priorities would be friendships, relationships and the latest technology. Teenagers don’t choose their friends, their friends choose them. People typically gravitate towards groups that accept you and so we encourage parents they need to be intentional at a younger age to provide great friendships. The Bible talks about how if we walk with the wise, we become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm (Proverbs 13:20). Your friends will determine the quality and the direction of your life. Teens spend hours connecting with their friends through social media, texting, through online video games.

What concerns do most teens have, and share, these days?

Typically it’s dating and relationships, friendships, not feeling loved by parents. Girls sometimes wrestle with feeling beautiful, self-esteem, comparing themselves to models. Drinking. Not every kid who comes here is drinking, but kids are going to wrestle with these things.

Teens today are more technologically advanced than any generation before them. Are there any concerns with all this power at their fingertips?

When it comes to jobs and employment, teens can navigate the Internet and computers far better than adults. ... When it comes to their development as adults, though, I’m not convinced that it’s helped their development. My concern is that they’ve been exposed to information that they’re not ready to handle at a younger age and it’s created an artificial maturity. Some graduates that we’re seeing now are struggling with interpersonal communication skills, people skills. So I’m not against or for social media, but I encourage parents to combine autonomy to use social media with responsibility. … What’s scary is that teenagers can say or do whatever they want behind a computer or a smart phone, but they don’t always see the damage potentially that could be done, and sometimes aren’t required to take responsibility for it.

All of this stuff I’m saying would also apply for our middle school youth. Most of them have smart phones, too.

What do you think would surprise most parents about what and how teenagers think?

That their teens don’t feel connected to them, that they feel they can’t talk to their parents openly. One female small group leader mentions that parents might be surprised that teen girls sometimes, even before their teens, wonder if they’re appealing to the opposite sex. If not, they strive for that.

Parents must know you’re not going to prevent your kids from being exposed to various things. You can take precautions and have boundaries, good communication with your teenager or middle school student or elementary student, to help them walk through the information that they’re receiving while they’re under your roof and influence so they know how to handle it when they graduate.

We need to let our kids engage in the world while they’re still under our umbrella, or influence. If we try to hover over our kids and never let them experience anything, then when they hit 18 and they go away to college, they’re not going to know how to handle life, so all of a sudden the world’s thrown at them. I’ve heard Pastor Jerry [Gillis] say, ‘It’s like letting your kids scrimmage while they’re in the home.” You can coach so that when they reach 18, they’re actually able to manage in the world.

Not every family has the same boundaries as you. Accept the fact that your teenagers will be exposed to things, but the key thing is that you have open communication with your teenagers so that you can talk to them about the information they’re receiving while they’re under your roof, and you can help walk them through it.

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