Youth Culture and Progressive Faith-Based Organizing

Youth Culture and Progressive Faith-Based Organizing August 15, 2018

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about youth culture and progressive faith-based organizing. Maybe it’s the stage of life we’re in, with our children slowly growing into adolescence, while we parents find ourselves startled in middle-age.

Maybe it’s the only move I know to sustain hope in these times. Focus on the children as our future.
I’m not quite sure.

Whatever the reason, I’ve got youth on my mind, and their role in sustaining a better civic imagination in my heart. I’ve especially got these images in my head of some friends like Nicole Clowney and Megan Godfrey, both running for public office, whose children are always dancing and playing at campaign events, as a vision of the way forward.

Our three children are in three different schools this year: elementary, middle, and junior high. So this week included orientation, classroom tours, class schedule review, pod assignments, and locker opening. Plus subscriptions to ALL the e-mails, Reminds, and really ALL the things.

Then Friday, the highly anticipated soccer team rosters arrived, so I spent a chunk of yesterday getting messages out to my teams, as I’m coaching both U8 and U15 soccer this year.

Finally this morning, to cap it all off, a group of our kids’ friends all assembled at Modern Mission for a vigorous round of laser tag. It was an excellent way to conclude the summer.

It’s been a great summer, with long stretches of time where sometimes twice as many children inhabited our house as are biologically our offspring.

School starts Monday. We’re blessing backpacks in worship tomorrow at our 9 and 11 a.m. services. It’s no longer summer. It’s back-to-school time!

With back-to-school comes all the preparations for youth ministry at church also. We already hosted a robust summer of youth ministry opportunities. Although it feels like ages ago, in June we offered our first ever Interfaith Youth Camp, learning from leaders at the Islamic Center, the synagogue, and our two Christian churches (Episcopal and Lutheran) about our faiths and their way of reading shared sacred texts and stories.

As I’ve run into parents the last couple of months, many of them have said to me, “That Interfaith Youth Camp woke something up with my kids. They really listened. It was… it was really good.”

Then in late June, I traveled to Houston for the ELCA Youth Gathering. 30,000 high schoolers in one city, often under one roof. I’m still rocked by the voices we heard, the testimonies by some of the speakers, who brought together deep and abiding Christian commitment together with advocacy for #blacklivesmatter, transgender voices, mission not as “get people to accept Jesus into their hearts,” but mission as accompaniment of the poor, solidarity with those where Jesus’ heart resides.

I want to find ways to carry these amazing summer experiences into the fall. It’s not always easy. Sunday school and youth group sometimes have been so “traditioned” that those of us who lead them have to find ways to conduct them in ways that bring our values into alignment with our practice.

I have to back up and tell a bit of history to explain what I mean. So when I was young, I was always and regularly involved in youth ministry leadership. In high school, I sang in a high school church choir, I was the kid who called the other kids and asked them if they were going Sunday night to youth group. I was an acolyte. I went on all the youth trips.

I can still remember Tony Campolo speaking at the youth gathering in San Antonio, and saying, “It hurts God’s heart that people would care more if I said shit up here on the stage than they care about children starving in the world.”

That was back in the day when some of the most prominent evangelicals were also concerned about social justice. Like Jimmy Carter. Remember those days? I do.

Anyway, I then went on to work at a variety of church camps as a counselor in college, served as president of our college congregation my senior year, directed a church camp in Iowa for a couple of years while in seminary, worked as a youth director in Minnesota for year, and taught high school with global mission in Slovakia.

In other words, before I had kids, I spent a LOT of my career working WITH youth. So I’ve had a bit of time to think about this youth ministry thing, even if I’ve never fully figured it out. It’s like youth keep being born, and the culture keeps changing, so figuring out how to do youth ministry is a moving target.

During a lot of that time in youth ministry, I think I focused on the trifecta I’d seen modeled: have fun, learn something, and serve a little. Mostly fun, often learning, sometimes service.

Now as a parent, I’m trying to discern what I hope for with my own children. I know there are parts about our family and church faith practices I feel good about. There are other ways I feel I’m failing. For example, as a pastor I kind of wish I was reading the Bible every day with my kids. But full confession, I don’t. It’s fraught, because since church is what I do professionally, I don’t want to foist it on the kids.

And although I’m very faithful at public prayer, and prayer on my own, I struggle with prayer that lives at the intersection of private and public, like family and intimate prayer. We do pray at meals, so that’s good, but I wonder: am I doing faith formation right with our family?

I do read them Madeline L’Engle novels out loud at bed time. The Wrinkle in Time series, which sneaks in a lot of Scripture.

Primarily, I hope that our children learn their faith by seeing their parents commitments. I hope they’ll learn faith by seeing our faith in action. I know the studies indicate this is the main way youth learn faith. It’s not whether you make them read the Bible. It’s whether they see you reading the Bible yourself.

It’s what they see you do, and how you explain to them what you do and why you do it. Especially on the public things, because keeping public things private doesn’t increase agency. Instead, it creates a vacuum that is easily filled by those who seek to manipulate such vacuum.

I go to a lot of marches, for example. The family doesn’t go to most of them. And that’s fine. We attended one march together this year, the Pride parade, and it was amazing and good, but youth don’t have to do all the things the adults do. Same for pastors. Every once in a while, the kids go on home visits with me. But only rarely.

What does all this have to do with youth ministry? Well, I’ve never been a believer in the notion (popular among liberals) that we should just let children discover what they believe for themselves. I don’t think this works very well. Faith is caught or taught. It doesn’t just emerge from an untouched tabula rasa.

But I also share with liberals a kind of general commitment to non-proselytization. I don’t want to force anything on my children. However, this gut reaction, to avoid forming faith simply because we’ve seen it mal-formed, isn’t going to work, and it will backfire, because when we don’t form faith with our children, they are left without any equipment necessary to resist the strong forms of formation prevalent in our culture.
I’m reminded of that Rodgers and Hammerstein line from South Pacific (which then makes me think about that article by the photographer who takes photos of children at Trump rallies):
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
So too, I think progressive Christians are going to need to find the right kinds of ways, consonant with their values, to form faith with youth. And it’s going to take a lot of creative work, because progressive Christians are the minority in our nation, and so many of the resources (from publishing houses, online, and even in the “way” certain things are done, like VBS) inadvertently or surreptitiously teach theologically problematic and morally concerning values.
We’ll need to be really creative, and we’re going to need to think much more intentionally and regularly about always asking, when we’re talking about progressive values and progressive organizing, “What about the kids?”
What does progressive Christian youth ministry look like? Well, I can think of a couple of things right off the bat. Probably the most centered version is the vacation bible school series we’ve offered the last three summers, the first year on faith and science (no, evolution and Christianity are not in opposition), the second year on community organizing (yes means love in public), the third year an actual Interfaith Youth Camp (yes, you learn Christianity better when you come to value and understand lovingly your neighbor’s religion).
We’ll keep doing these, because they’re that valuable.
Also, you’re probably doing it right if people want to bring their children to your youth program because it’s a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ+ youth, differently-abled youth, or because your church is involved enough in the good work of your community that they want their children connected to it.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve gotten a little sense of why I’m leaning into youth ministry in new ways. As a pastor, I’ve committed a good chunk of my time to being with young people right where they are: at the soccer fields, in the schools, in our house. But I want to create space for young people, and the adults who share common cause in Christianity “from below,” to figure out how to do this emerging kind of church in ways that form our children as well.

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  • jekylldoc

    This is really valuable. Good programmatic and family decisions coming from sound (IMO) theology. We Christians are so hung up on credal issues, but this is what Christianity really looks like. More power to you.

  • Steve Bailey

    Good stuff. Thank you. You remind me that there is some hope for American Christian witness and impact. That hope is the message of the Prophets anf of Jesus and we have to embrace it.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Why is church so boring?

  • sanchezmikea

    All that and not word about the most amazing man to walk the earth, or what he said. The road to hell is wide, but the path to heaven is narrow. But whatever your sin, drugs, sex, selfishness, etc, etc. Jesus paid for all of them when he died on the cross, for all time. Ask him for forgiveness and he will give you the gift of life. He stands at the door and knocks, and whoever opens to him, he will come in and dine with them.

  • sanchezmikea I agree