Short Reads

The Bishop of Springfield caused quite the stir yesterday with a tweet about how unimpressed he was with the Official Youth Presence at General Convention. The tweet sparked many wonderful responses about the role of the Official Youth Presence and the impact it has had on clergy and lay people across the world.

The Bishop wrote a blog post responding to the controversy. At one point he issued what could be interpreted as an apology, saying, “I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did.”

This isn’t a direct response to those initial comments or the “apology”, but a post inspired by the sentiment.

The Bishop was unimpressed by the Official Youth Presence because they didn’t mention Jesus enough. He was also unimpressed because they were “annoyingly issue-oriented”.

There are two major issues with the Bishop’s comments. First, there is an assumption that the Official Youth Presence exists to impress. That assumption raises my blood pressure enough for me to write a separate post on it later.

The second assumption is that there is a bar of orthodoxy and Jesus’s-per-minute that people must adhere to in order to be considered credible. Tied to this assumption is the misplaced idea that without explicitly mentioning the name of Jesus, advocacy and service becomes “issue-oriented” instead of Christ-oriented.

That last assumption is also enough to merit a separate post, but let me say this one thing: If the Lord of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, is relying on the vocabulary and word-choice of a group of youth, we are all in trouble.

Now I am not currently a “youth”, but I was once a “youth”, so I feel that I have the authority to speak from my experience. I also work as the Canon Missioner for Youth and Young Adults in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, which gives me a small amount of credibility when I say the following:

Youth are unimpressed with much of the leadership of the church. 

Youth are unimpressed by the paralyzingly “issue-oriented” leadership that can’t see Jesus in the world unless he is wearing a nametag.

Youth are unimpressed by leaders who require “litmus tests” for inclusion. It appears to me that Jesus had two litmus tests for those who would be his followers: love of God and love of neighbor.

Youth are unimpressed by the ostrich style of leadership that would rather bury its head in the sand than relearn what it means to be a Christian in a new time and place.

Youth are disappointed when the church they love turns on them while they are trying to serve it.

It is time for some of the leaders in the church to get the mitre out of their eyes and see that a group of youth VOLUNTEERING to come to a international church convention is a blessing before it is anything else. In a time when the church decline industrial complex is booming, the fact that youth are willing to give up two weeks of their summer to spend time with Bishops that are admittedly “unimpressed” with them is a testament to the youth and an indictment of the Bishops.

My final point is about formation in the church. If the youth do not have the language to articulate their faith, whose fault is that? We could listen to Paul’s letter to the Romans on this one: “…how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

If the youth haven’t heard a clear proclamation of Jesus Christ in a way that is relevant and authentic, it can hardly be their fault if they lack the necessary language to articulate their faith.

My final advice to the church is to talk to the youth before you dismiss them. Talk to the youth who give up time in their increasingly busy schedules to volunteer and serve. Talk to the youth who defy the stereotypes about Millennials by believing in Jesus enough apply to be a part of an institutional church. Talk to the youth about what makes them come alive and how Jesus has impacted them personally before you write them off as “unimpressive”.

The youth that I have met and that I have the honor of working with are unimpressed with much in the world, but one thing is certain: they are impressed by Jesus, the One who has made enough of an impression on all of us to bring us into His Church to love God through one another.


UPDATE: I am grateful for Bishop Mark Bourlakas for his support of youth and youth ministry. Here is his statement:”I am so impressed with the commitment of the official Youth Presence here. It made me proud to be a bishop in the Church and in our Diocese where we have so many fun, talented and faithful young people committed to Jesus. Yesterday one of our own former DioSWVa youth, Grace Aheron, beautifully read the first reading at the Convention’s opening Eucharist.”

A Week in the Woods: Reflections on Youth Week at Kanuga and the future of youth ministry

Short Reads

I spent the last week in the mountains of Western North Carolina at the Kanuga Conference Center as a staff member for Senior Young People (SYP). SYP is a weeklong conference for high school students from across the country that, along with Junior Young People (JYP) and Adults Who Work With Youth (AWWWY), makes up the annual Youth Week at Kanuga.

Kanuga is a special place in my life for two big reasons. First, I was a participant at Youth Week and the winter equivalent, Winterlight, as a young person. Some of my earliest moments of self-discovery and growth took place in the meeting spaces and large group venues at Kanuga. It is a major signpost on my journey towards the priesthood. Second, and most importantly, my wife and I were married at Kanuga in the Chapel of the Transfiguration.

I look forward to making the trek back to Kanuga once or twice a year to work on staff at these youth conferences and reconnect with fellow staff members and friends from all over the country. Despite everything I just wrote, this is not a sappy post about how much I love Kanuga. Neither is this an advertisement for Youth Week or any of the programs hosted at Kanuga.

This post is about the future of youth ministry inspired by my experience at SYP.

The theme of this year’s program was “Making a Way By Walking”. The focus was the journeys that led us to Kanuga and the continually unfolding journey in front of us once we left. This got me thinking about the event-driven model of youth ministry. Too often, youth events and camps are seen as “mountain top” experiences that help sustain our faith until we can get back to the mountaintop for the next event.

I have heard numerous people refer to youth events as the “mountain top” and their daily lives as the “valley” or “the real world”.

This presents two clear problems:

First, Jesus is quite clear that the spiritual life cannot exist on the mountain top. In Matthew and Luke, he is transfigured in the presence of his closest friends on the mountain top, but then quickly returns to the work of ministry on the ground. The mountain top is an incubator for spiritual experience, sure, but it is no place for that experience to fully develop and mature.

It is easy to coordinate a weekend retreat or weeklong conference to culminate in an emotional crescendo (Ex: any healing service at a summer camp or retreat weekend). The close quarters, change in sleep schedule, and new environments make retreats and camps minefields of emotion.

This isn’t inherently bad, but it does create unsustainable expectations for newly minted faith and spirituality. Which brings me to the second issue:

By propping up the false dichotomy between the mountain top and the “real world” we fail to equip young people with the tools that they will need to take their faith into their daily lives.

Christianity is hard.

For too long we have tried to dumb the faith down and make it as user-friendly as possible, but the truth is that faith in Jesus Christ in the 21st century requires everything you have. It requires changing, growing, and being molded into the person God has called you to be. It requires speaking up against injustice in all its insidious forms. It requires putting others before self. It requires a dramatic reordering of personal priorities.

The Early Church showed that admitting Jesus was Lord meant denouncing all of the other voices that try to assert Lordship. We no longer have a Caeser that claims to be a god, but we do have systemic racism, consumerism, phobias of all sorts (homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, etc.), and nationalism that are trying to put their idols on the throne to be worshipped.

We’ve had a few decades of “I’m okay, you’re okay” Christianity and it has only given us more room in our pews on Sunday morning.

Like Peter, too often we ask “Where can we pitch our tents?” but the missional conversation reminds us that the better questions is “Where has God already set up camp?”

Instead of setting up camp twice a year on the mountain top, our mission is to walk the streets of our communities and join God’s camping trip already in progress.

The future of youth ministry is less event based and more missional. It will take youth out into their communities, out from behind the “safe” walls of their faith communities and into the messy world. There will be fewer “Facebook profile picture mission trips” and more local service.

It will mean helping youth develop a language for their faith and how their faith impacts their day-to-day lives. It will mean less entertainment and more discipleship. In the world of Netflix and iPhones, youth do not need any more entertainment – what they need is deep formation and meaning.

The last day of SYP was spent talking about the journey ahead and what the experiences at Kanuga mean for the days and weeks to come. 150 people hiked around the lake with our arms held above our heads to illustrate how hard it is to walk in the Christian way. The only relief on the hike came when we stood in a big circle, everyone’s arms resting on the people next to them.

This is the image of the future of youth ministry. Like hiking three miles with hands up, it is not easy, but it is doable. We should be teaching youth that the Christian life is not always sunshine and rainbows, but that all things are possible through Christ and the fellowship of the Church. That the world can be a dark place, but that we are to proclaim the Light.

I left Kanuga refreshed and ready to head to Salt Lake City for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. My hope is that the General Convention is a moment of rest, when we can stand together and rest our arms as we sing a new church into being.

I hope that we are not looking to build more mountain tops, but are prepared to take our tents down and go out into the world.

I am optimistic about the future of youth ministry and the future of the Episcopal Church because of the young people that crowded into Kanuga for a week. I saw them transformed and sent out to spread the Good News that God is already working in the “real world” and it is our moment to join in.