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.”