Monday, January 20, 2014

Public Church: What Youth See

Guest essay by Josh Graber, developer pastor of the Altyear program:

One of the lessons I learned as a youth director and one of the lessons I’m sure any one that works with youth has also learned is that youth aren’t dumb.  They play dumb sometimes, sure, and they may even seem to play dead sometimes, right in the middle of what you think is a great lesson, but they are usually listening.  They are paying attention even when it seems like they aren’t.  And late at night during a lock-in or traveling back from a mission trip, when you get that chance to talk with them one-to-one, they will reveal a whole world of ideas, emotions, and faith that you probably could not see on the surface.

Youth are not dumb.  They notice things, they are curious, they pay attention.  And so when youth look around the church and see a lack of young adults.  When they see their fellow youth group leaders, graduate from high school and go off to college or the work force or their parent’s basements and not show their face in a church and not connect with a faith community, they know that this time in youth group has an expiration date and as the curriculum of church culture teaches them so does their time in a faith community.

The least common demographic in church involvement is young adults.  Statistics back this up but any youth group participant could tell you that too.  We as a church do many great things for youth and provide opportunities for young adult leadership as camp counselors, campus ministries, and service leadership in places other than congregations, but it is leadership that churches and youth rarely see, and even when they do see these examples, they may not translate into a faith that is a daily experience and a life changing call. 

Youth need to see that the young adult years are not years to spend away from the church.  Years to graduate from the need for faith communities.  This is the time that faith communities most need to step up to support the human growth and contemplation of major life decisions and personality formation that occurs during young adult years.  We need to be there for young adults and if we are connecting with young adults, and the church and world sees that, it will be the best possible way to engage youth who are ready to grow up but not ready to grow out of the faith.  Youth are not dumb and care more about their faith communities than they will admit.

I have had the privilege to work with the leaders of Lutheran Year programs like Young Adults in Global Mission, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Urban Servant Corps, and Border Servant Corps.  Along with the great tradition of Youth Encounter these ministries have given support and a transformative community experience for young adult Christians for decades and now we are working together to share these experiences more openly and publicly to the rest of the church and especially so that youth can see that there are opportunities for them to live out their faith even more deeply when they finish their youth group years.  This winter we will begin a push to let churches and youth groups know more about these opportunities.
For the most part these experiences are seen as service year opportunities, but there is room for new ideas and models that can reach young adults that may not see the church as having anything to offer them more than membership in a club that is owned and operated by older generations. 


ALT Year is a new model that creates space for young adults to boldly live out their faith with peers, the church, and society.  ALT stands for Abundant Life Together and it is a call for all people in our church to live into the abundant life Jesus came to give us (John 10:10) a life full of joys and challenges, faith and doubts.  It takes what has often been seen as the major weakness of our church, a lack of young adult participation, and gathers a critical mass of young adults in a specific location making it a strength for area congregations to gather around, support, and learn from.

The young adults participate in service leadership at area congregations, ministries, and nonprofits, they connect with mentors who teach them a skill or help them pursue a vocational interest, they have bible studies and do spiritual practice exercises with area pastors, they learn life skills like cooking, financial management, and group dynamics.  They pursue intellectual growth connected to faith conversation through texts, films, and speakers around monthly themes like Freedom, Imagination, Community, and Vocation.  This abundant way of living and learning is a relational “grade-free” model based on a 150 year old Scandinavian Folkehøgskole Tradition that values learning for learning sake and treats life as a curriculum.


ALT Communities also gather around the strengths and resources of the community that hosts them.  Our first site in Toledo, Ohio chose to focus on “Faithful Citizenship” because of its rich political tradition, its placement in the state that determines all presidential elections, the placement of the host church in the midst of the government plaza in downtown Toledo.
The windows of the ALT Room in Saint Paul’s (the host church for ALT Year Toledo) looks out on the courthouse, the police station, and the government center, with the Toledo Blade Newspaper building and the Valentine Theater in the periphery.  I like to say that this Faithful Citizenship site is planted in the middle of every season of the Wire (an HBO Series about the interconnected participants in civic life in Baltimore). 

In one of our first sessions I looked out on the government center and saw that the flags were lowered so we had a discussion and prayed for those affected by the shootings in Washington D.C.  Most of our sessions and prayers are interrupted by the sound of sirens passing by whether going from a police station, hospital, or fire house to help someone in need.  The sirens are a constant reminder of the needs of the community and to pray for those that are suffering.


One of the values that we hold up in ALT is “Courage”.  Courage is what is lacking in our church.  Our belief is that if our church leaders were better at embodying courage, especially the courage to change, courage to create something new, our voice among young adults would be magnified.  When we talk about a Public Faith we should understand that this is a faith defined by the courage to speak into a culture that may not understand or agree with us.

The ALT Year participants are introduced to courageous Christians from our tradition like Luther and Bonhoeffer, who followed their faith even to the point of risking their lives.   They learn about the prophets of the Bible and the Prophetic Imagination that has called empires to tension points of transformation. They identify leaders around them or from their past experience that they also see as courageous and willing to stand up to the status quo in order to help others and follow their calls faithfully.  We learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and the musician Rodriguez, a Detroit musician who affected the end of apartheid through his music.  Learning the courage to speak and to take action are areas that the group needs to be challenged in and they often challenge each other to live out their faith more deeply.  But the best way to be inspired to live out a courageous faith is to meet people that live out their faith in courageous ways in the very moment of our own context.

Our first Faithful Citizenship Session happened to be on the first day of the government shutdown this fall.  One of the hopes of ALT Year groups and especially this one in Toledo focused on Faithful Citizenship is that these young adults may be able to give older generation a better model for dialogue than what they see on TV and hear on the radio from D.C. and elsewhere.  The polarized paralysis of government this year was evidence of the need, but the group in Toledo got to see first hand that change is possible through civic action and living into a role of public church participants.

Early on the morning of the shutdown our ALT Facilitator gave me a call telling me that her husband, a local pastor at Salem Lutheran in Toledo’s Northside neighborhood was organizing a trip to visit politicians offices with some of his parisioners, in order to advocate for the poor who he said would be most quickly affected by the shutdown.  I pondered how involved to get in the action.  Our pilot group is made up of a pretty good cross section of the American political system from anarchists, to liberals, to conservatives.  We invited Pastor Vince to come talk with us along with his parishioners and they let the group know why they felt this action was important and was part of making their faith active and engaged with the world.

One of the ALT Participants joined them at their Toledo action where they attempted to go to a Senator’s office.  They had media cameras with them and when they were denied, the media revealed that the senator was meeting with corporate lobbyists at the same time in Washington D.C.  Vince was in the middle of a news story and in the middle of being public church. 

He came back at the end of the week and shared the experience of the group and the news footage from local TV about the Toledo event.  At the same time he was presenting, we learned that the Senator, perhaps in need of good publicity had begun floating compromise bills conceding some points to the opposition party.  I doubt the compromise went anywhere, but thanks to Pastor Vince sharing his action with us, the young adults is ALT Year were able to see first hand what being Faithful Citizens could look like and how these actions of lived out faith can make an impact and a chain reaction that we may not see at the beginning.


Too often we wait to act until something else happens.  We wait for the reaction as a link in the chain, but don’t know how to start it.  It’s my hope that the young adults who go through ALT Year will be exposed to so many people who practice an active public faith that they are able to easily live into the same faith.  But more than copying the best of our Christian example, I sincerely hope that these young adults will be able to lead us with good courage and creativity to new ventures of faith.  And that those actions and lives of faith are public to the people that most need to see their future in those lives of faith…our youth. 


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