Young People In The Church (TM)

I am a young person in the church. It is great! I love my parish, and my church community is a source of friendship, spiritual sustenance, and purpose. As should surprise no one, I have some thoughts about what being A Young Person In The Church has felt like to me, and what we might do to welcome, incorporate, respect, and learn from other Young People. (Spoiler alert: Stop thinking of us in capital letters.) Some of these ideas come from things my congregation does really well; some of them originate with frustrating or hurtful encounters I’ve had. Some of this will probably be pretty specific to the Episcopal Church, and some of it probably will not be.

(NB: For the purposes of this post, Young People = anyone under 40.)

Please don’t tell us that we’re babies.

I feel like this should be obvious, and yet it keeps happening to me: someone (usually in his or her 40s or 50s) will ask my age, and when they hear it (28), they’ll exclaim, “You’re a baby!” Or I’ll describe a troubling or distressing situation–financial instability or vocational concerns–only to have it met with, “Well, you’re SO YOUNG” (the implicit corollary being that my difficulty in making rent is therefore not a serious problem). Or someone will say in my presence, “Anyone under 40 is just a baby to me.”

People. I am a grown-ass woman. I have grey hairs and wrinkles. I pay taxes, I get drunk legally, I try to live into my wedding vows. When you tell me that I’m a baby, you dismiss my whole life, all my suffering and struggle and hard-earned wisdom. You tell me that my life doesn’t count to you. This would be equally unacceptable if I were a college student, or even a high school student. We all have wisdom to offer. We all have suffering that needs to be acknowledged. We are all very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. We all count.

Ask us to do stuff.

By which I mean: invite young people into leadership positions; not just as acolytes or youth fellowship groups, but as vestry members, as members of the committees that make the big decisions. When you’re choosing a group to think about what you want your church’s future to look like, to think big, to decide how to allocate your money and how to grow your church, ask young people to be part of making those decisions.

By which I also mean: invite us into areas of church life that don’t just have to do with worship. Ask us to help serve coffee hour, or to be on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer to help serve the homeless, or to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners. Let us know that we’re needed, and help us feel that the church is ours, too, and we’re not simply filling a pew on someone else’s sufferance. Be our friends. My parish is particularly good at asking people to do stuff, with a fantastic ministry of hospitality and welcome to newcomers, and it’s made such a difference in my life.

Facebook is a red herring.

You guys, I have sat through so. many. sermons. about Facebook. And The World Wide Web. And the perilous allure of Technology. At best, these make me roll my eyes, and at worst, they make me furious. It’s sort of like re-watching the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they set up Willow as the computer wizard who “surfs the net” using the wonders of dial-up: these episodes just don’t wear well, and I can’t really take them seriously. But any discussion about Young People In The Church must apparently include some reference to Facebook, which makes it hard for me to take any discussion about YPITC seriously.

Technology moves very fast, and it’s hard to keep up with (like, what is Snapchat? Is it or is it not purely for sexting? Discuss.), and I get that it’s scary to have this huge pervasive element that wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives a generation ago. And yet, no matter how fast technology changes, people don’t change. People still need the same things we have always needed: sustenance, shelter, community, God. Our tools evolve, but what we’re trying to do with those tools remains pretty stable. The fact that many young people create communities on the internet does not change the fact that we need community. Focus on that.

Spend some money on us.

Fund youth ministry programs, church summer camps, college chaplaincies. Invest in Christian formation for all ages. Ask that your youth ministers be professionals, and compensate them accordingly, both financially and with respect for their roles and gifts. This article by Frederick Schmidt says it beautifully:

Youth and campus ministry need to be treated as a vocation and destination and not as heavy lifting done by someone young enough to survive a week at camp with a hundred kids. That means paying youth ministers as if they do something critical. That means cultivating an approach to the vocation that makes it possible to continue doing the work as long as they feel called to do it. And it means eliminating structures that suggest that this is something worth doing only as long as you are young, unattached, and willing to eat pizza.

Think of us as people rather than members of a demographic. Treat us as an end rather than a means.

One thing I don’t much like in the article linked to above is that Schmidt opens by citing the (admittedly troubling) decline in Episcopal Church membership and aging of its clergy and congregations, then presents his powerful plea for good youth ministry as a solution to this problem. Personally, I don’t want to be anyone’s solution to a declining church. I don’t want to be welcomed as a Young Person; I’d prefer to be welcomed as a real person. Similarly, youth ministry is important not simply because without it the church might not survive; it’s important because young people–like all people–have pressing spiritual needs, and because every person is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and because it’s our job as Christians to spread the light of Christ in the world.

We talk a lot in the church about seeing the full humanity of all people, and in the end, I think it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that. Young people are not babies. We are not alien masters of technology (I still don’t have a smartphone). We are not the holy grail sought by an aging church. We’re just people.

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3 thoughts on “Young People In The Church (TM)

  1. I LOVE this. As both a YPITC and a high school campus minister, I sort of see both ends of this conversation. And frankly, I’m rather outraged (though not surprised) that people would call you a baby or dismiss your experiences because of your age.

    I’m wondering based on what you wrote how important it is to have pastoral ministers who are young. I’m not sure if this needs to be a requirement, and it is pretty problematic to assume that only young people can relate to young people. But taking technology for example: I taught three colleagues how to cut and paste text this week. That’s an extreme example, but basically, I’m trying to say that for some people, it’s challenging enough to learn to use technology; learning to see its possibilities to connect people might be even harder.

    What do you think?

    • Yeah, I would be really interested to hear how you see this conversation; I think I am starting to have a lot of ideas about youth ministry, but you are actually in the thick of it. I’m also wondering what your take is on the differences between ministry to and for teenagers and that directed to and for young adults. I think I sort of conflate the two here; most of the time I’m talking about what it’s like to be a young, independent adult in the church, but I also think the experiences and needs of teenagers–who are not necessarily voluntary participants in church life, and who don’t have the same freedom and independence that adults do, but who we believe to be full members of the church community by virtue of baptism*–deserve attention.

      As for youth ministers needing to be young–hm. Hm. I think youth ministers need to be relatable, comfortable, accepting presences. I think young people need to feel like they are welcomed and loved as themselves. I don’t think there’s an age cut-off for this, and I’m wary of expressing a more specific opinion, since I don’t actually have youth ministry experience. But my experience as a high school student and later teacher was that the age of the teacher had little to do with whether she actually appreciated teenagers. I guess that’s sort of how I think about technology, too–it doesn’t matter whether you’re up-to-date on technology when you start. The important thing is to hang out and listen to what people are telling you about how they find communities and how they stay connected, and then work with that. (Also, wow. Cut and paste? Wow.)

      *And/or confirmation? I’m sort of fuzzy on that, and I think this might be one of the points of divergence between TEC and Catholicism.

  2. Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

    YPITC always makes me think of I Tim 4:12, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (NRSV)

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