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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How do you get Catholics to sing at Mass?

Ah, the age old question.  I wish I had a punchier answer.

But the reality is that this is an extremely difficult question to consider.  In my Campus Ministry department, we are working on some evaluations and strategic planning for next year.  We are grappling with difficult questions like, “How does our programming contribute to the faith development of our students?” and “What leadership skills do we develop in our retreat leaders?” and even more pressing, “How much of our budget can go towards pizza parties next year?”  But in all seriousness, one of the questions that always comes up is how to get students to really connect with the Mass.

Discussion of school Masses always gets strangely tense in a Catholic school.  The reality is that most Catholic schools have significant non-Catholic populations among the students and the staff, so not only do school Masses have to engage disengaged Catholics, but another section of the population would rather not be there all together.   No matter how many arguments a campus minister might make on behalf of school Masses (“You get an hour to sit and reflect by yourself!”  “At least you’re not in class!” “If you were at a Jewish school you’d have to go to Jewish services!”), there are always loud voices that argue we shouldn’t have Masses at all or that non-Catholics should be exempt from going.  Beyond that, the engagement and participation varies so much from person to person and Mass to Mass that campus ministers seize on anything that might maximize liturgical participation and joy.  Music is usually the first target.

As I participate in these discussions, I am reminded of a liturgy class I took in grad school.  One of the professor’s favorite lines was “the liturgy is not a plaything.”  He belittled the idea that the externalities of liturgy (ie: quality of the music, banners, programs, lighting, homilies, etc) were what mattered and disparaged the attitudes of liturgists who “played around” with these things.

But these discussions invariably lead to a kind of chicken-egg reasoning–“Do Catholics sing because they’re engaged in the Mass, or do Catholics become engaged by singing?”  Should campus ministers focus on making music and lighting better, or should they argue that what brings people to Mass is out of the control of the liturgist?

I am comforted, somewhat, by the fact that this is not a problem our school alone faces.  Liturgists at schools and parishes throughout the Church deal with this problem.  Whenever I hear someone evaluate a parish or a Mass, s/he always begins by describing the music.  Fussy music directors and stagnant music abound in the Catholic Church and everyone has an opinion about it.  So it is hard to be the person on the front line, making the decisions about what 650 people are going to be doing for an hour, knowing many will simply disengage.

And it is this train of thought that leads me right to the siren song of self importance.  I have to consciously remind myself that sacraments do not depend on me, that the Mass is not subject to what I think is important that year, or what I think students would enjoy singing.  And this is where I get stuck–believing I can’t do everything, but wanting to do something.  Knowing that music matters, but failing at fixing the entire problem.  I love to tinker and try to make what is good even better, and I have to remind myself that the Kingdom is beyond our efforts AND our vision, and that I am a worker, not a master builder. 

But I have to disagree with my former professor.  Externalities do matter, a lot.  Anyone who has ever planned a Mass and had the barrage of comments/opinions/nitpicking afterwards knows that.  And if the Mass is the front lines–the place where the most people encounter Catholicism in motion, I have to do everything in my power to plan a smooth and meaningful liturgy.  But that doesn’t mean I should start tinkering with everything.  Just maybe–solid songs that everyone can sing, a homily that is brief and to the point, and a Sign of Peace and Communion procedure that is smooth and effective.  Maybe liturgists can just focus on those things.

I really wish I had the answer to getting Catholics to sing.  Until someone figures it out, I’ll be poring over music books and planning for next week.