by Rev. BJ Barlow, Associate Regional Minister, Youth and Young Adult Ministries

Of course, we want young people involved. Seeing them at the lectern, sharing their stories about camp, singing a song, reading the scripture lesson – it assures us that there is a future for the Church. We want young people to know they have a special place in our communities. After all, there is nothing more heartwarming on Sunday than seeing a chancel full of children during Children’s Moment. We know all that means so much to us will continue because young people are engaged and continuing meaningful work in the church. They truly are the key to the Church’s future.

Undeniably we are facing a situation for the future of the Church that needs to be “unlocked.” Many of the churches in the PSWR are facing serious decline in attendance, energy, and vision. If only we could somehow convince young people to continue the things that have been so meaningful for us, then they will learn to appreciate it, too.

What if I told you that holding such a distinct role isn’t always very encouraging for young people in the Church? After all, being a key that unlocks what is truly cherished probably is not very affirming for anyone. Once the key has done its job, it is put back in the drawer until it is needed again. So it is for young people in many faith communities. Why would anyone want to stay in a position like that?

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In an interview with NBC News last August, Rev. Terri Hord Owens pointed out that young people have become cynical about organizations that are disinterested in what is important to them. She stressed the importance of empowering young people’s connection with their own expressions of faith. “[Young people] connect in different ways as human beings. I am more concerned with how the church is going to be responsive to their change of connection… If we need to alter the way they connect, to let them know that the things they care about… are the things we care about within the church, then so be it.”

Perhaps we’ve convince ourselves that doing special youth events or highlighting pop culture in worship is sufficient in connecting young people to their faith. However, according to Rev. Dr. Andrew Root (Luther Seminary), creating privileged roles for young people has contributed to their disconnecting from the Church. In an article published by Faith & Leadership, Dr. Root argues that highlighting youth as an ornamental accessory to Christian faith sets a shallow connection in their own lives. In other words, the Church has mistakenly taught young people that the value they bring to the Church is superficial and peripheral – not a central asset in its mission.

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Imagine how many times children are called to the front of the church to hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” to then only be dismissed to a separate space for Children’s Church immediately following. Of course, there are certainly a lot of pressing reasons why we do this, but one wonders how we’ve come to settle within this contradiction between teaching and practice.

Rev. Root challenges the Church to reimagine our approach to youth ministry. He asserts that effective youth ministry isn’t a strategy “to produce ‘Christian youth’ that hold on to the fashion and stay loyal to the brand. Instead, it seeks to invite young people into the cruciform space [of place sharing] that is concretely lived out by the community of the church.”

The future of the Church doesn’t rely on vibrant Youth Sunday programs or an increase in VBS enrollment. The future of the Church doesn’t even necessarily include specialized youth programming at all. Instead, when a community empowers young people to use their gifts, passions, cares, and worries as an expression of THE Church, then we’ll all begin to experience growth in unimaginable ways.

I am proud to be a part of a region of churches that is trying new things and exploring ways to empower young people to serve at the center of its mission. You’ll see this manifest at Regional Assembly this fall as our young people have been given the opportunity to design, plan, and lead worship on Saturday morning. You’ll also see it in the workshops, service projects, and mission trips we sponsor together. Giving young people a special space may seem like a helpful thing, but offering to share space and serve beside one another is what it means to be community.

To read the full NBC News Article with GMP Rev. Terri Hord Ownes, visit: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/teresa-hord-owens-first-black-woman-lead-disciples-christchurch-n782981

For more information on Rev. Dr. Andrew Root’s work on youth ministry, visit: https://www.faithandleadership.com/andrew-root-take-it-bonhoeffer-there-no-christian-youth

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AuthorAlisa Mittelstaedt