Saturday, February 5, 2011

the runaway youth that flee congregations

You may have heard about the work that I'm doing in San Francisco with runaway and throwaway youth who have fled congregations, families and communities that they thought they would or actually were rejected because of their sexuality and gender identities. If not, you can read about it at the Vanguard Revisited blog.

Today, I'm thinking about the youth that flee congregations without leaving town or their families. When I talk to congregations about the fact that youth are long known for fleeing congregations after their confirmations, they chuckle nervously and wiggle in their seats with the kind of nervousness that comes from not knowing what to do or of having tried for years without any sign that their work has helped.

In 1963, the World Council of Churches faced a similar dilemma when the heads of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Methodist denominations gathered to come up with ideas about what to do about the fact that the baby boomers were all becoming teenagers. The denominations believed that if they lost the youth that their churches would die.

Sound familiar, contemporary churches?

So, the denominations trained pastors and lay leaders to create youth lead programs and ministry opportunities. College ministries created leadership programs and youth around the country were empowered to become a major part of the church. Theology and bible study became interested in the way that Bible spoke to people's every day lives.

This is something that people often tell me they are longing for when I visit congregations around the country, so why did this stop? The problem was that no one knew how to have boundaries and individualism at the same time. People worried that if they had any boundaries at all that the youth would flee the church and never come back. So, the individualism went way to far and church stopped looking like church.

In response to all the individualism, members of congregations began to crave structure and rules about what to believe and how to behave and churches across the country responded by reigning in on individualism and by preaching mainstream communal faith that could appeal to the majority.

Now, in the midst of unpopular wars and congregations that are falling behind the conventions of society it is time to revisit the theologies and youth led ministries that the 60's popularized. However, as people who are able to learn from our past, we need to find a balance between communal activities and extreme individualism.

So what is stopping us? Perhaps it's the fact that the youth whose individualism went too far are now the bishop's and members of church council who are afraid to trust the youth and ministers of today who want to be a part of youth led worship and groups.

So, consider this an open letter to those leaders, funders and pastors who lived benefited from youth led programing but worry that it will again go to far:

Please, forgive yourselves and the generation you were a part of. Be leaders to this new generation who deserve the chance to make the same mistakes you did. I believe that this important time in your life is what led to your ability to be strong leaders. You got to experiment, have patience with those who need to do so in order learn. Be mentors to me and other pastors who want to empower youth to lead their own activities and worship experiences. And remember that we can't do it for free. The 60's were only possible because they happened during a good economy. We need your money, without strings, to create the next generation of bishops, church council members and pastors. Please help!

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