One of the questions I hear most often from ruling elders is “Where are all the young people?” Within that, I hear lament, loss, and grief. These are healthy emotions. At the same time, it usually is not long before the conversation becomes “Young people just don’t make church a priority!” In that, I hear the less healthy feelings of disappointment, blame, and contempt.
As a presbytery leader who is also a millennial, it is surprising how often people express to me how much my generation has let down the church. And yet, younger people have the same unmet needs as so many others: shared meaning, effortless belonging, and the opportunity to make an impact on the world together. Like canaries dropping in a toxic mine, maybe it is not the fragility of their lungs that is worth naming so much as the quality of the atmosphere.
Here are some possibilities for creating new partnerships:
- Actually respect younger people. Are they understood as exceptions, representatives, or anomalies? Is the only high school student on your session officially “the youth elder” as if they are still in some kind of ruling elder larval stage? Young people can smell disrespect a mile away and often protest it with their feet.
- How would you describe the tone of the conversation around young people in your congregation?
- What do your conversations around young people assume about them?
- Remove the barriers that limit participation. What keeps young people from serving on session? Meeting time? Length? Day of the week? Service as ruling elders is based on our covenants to each other expressed through our ordination vows; there should be no other bars to clear. We must integrate new, more accessible ways for all to participate.
- What does the “table of power” look like in your system, and who has access?
- What kinds of barriers are limiting young people from having a seat there?
- Co-create Together. I feel most part of a community when my presence makes a clearly felt difference to it. In what ways are young people actually entrusted to lead? I notice the strongest coalitions of the congregation have plenty of culture-shaping influence around hymn choices, worship near patriotic civil holidays, flower placements, and other traditions that have been meaningful to some. Are young people able to exercise the same influence?
- What opportunities for co-creation exist for younger people?
- How might leadership of congregational life be indefinitely handed over to younger people?
- Embrace mutuality. There is a common perception of ruling elders as “sages” to instruct the young’uns, which can shape stifling attitudes applying to the least powerful in any given room. Some of our paternalistic tendencies kick in when we think young people are the only ones who are supposed to mature. The church is one of the few remaining spaces in our society where opportunity for intergenerational, mutual collaboration still exists. Is your church embracing these potentials?
- Where is intergenerational ministry experienced in your community?
- How might new partnerships between the generations be forged in generative ways?
Now, consider how these same questions might shape how we involve Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). How might the call for respect, removing barriers, co-creation, and mutuality ring true in these conversations as well? As with the mine and those canaries, perhaps we need to measure the quality of the atmosphere as we consider who are around our tables.
InterGenerate: Transforming Churches through Intergenerational Ministry, edited by Holly Catterton Allen, Abilene Christian University Press, 2018.
Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., by Lenny Duncan, Fortress Press 2019.
The Reverend Ryan Landino is the lead presbyter for transformation of the Presbytery of Great Rivers. Ryan is currently a member of the PC(USA) Special Committee on Racism, Truth, and Reconciliation, and manages the Facebook page “Pastor Ryan’s Sixty Second Sermons,” a model of concise sermons he adapted into short videos of creative explications of the Scripture that use editing, staging, and humor, often made in collaboration with the PC(USA) Office of Special Offerings.