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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.