A General Assembly task force on youth ministry is wrangling with these questions and more, knowing that, for many young people, the question of why stick with a traditional, mainline denomination when there are so many other choices (and when a growing group of American adults are claiming “no religious affiliation”) is a very open question.
The 2008 General Assembly created a task force on youth ministry, well aware that the Presbyterian churches have seen too many young people walking out their doors and too few walking back in. There are, of course, pockets of hope: the big and enthusiastic turnouts at recent Montreat college conferences, for example; or the commitment of young adult volunteers; or the real stories of individual congregations where organic, creative ministry with teenagers and young adults is flourishing (not just in bigger congregations, but in some smaller ones too).
But too often, “we literally cut these kids loose,” sometimes when they finish high school, sometimes even younger, when they are confirmed, said Kathleen Farnham, director of church relations at Maryville College in Tennessee, who spoke to the task force during an “open mike” time at the recent Big Tent gathering.
Many of these young adults go on to exciting things — to college and graduate school, travel, volunteer work around the world, and have so much to offer, she said. “This is my new passion,” Farnham said. “Once high school kids go on to college, we have to stay connected with them, and stay connected with them as young adults.”
The youth task force will report to the 2010 General Assembly. At its first set of meetings, held in conjunction with the Big Tent gathering in Atlanta, its members spent hours interviewing people, anyone they could grab in the Exhibit Hall, about what excites and frustrates them about youth ministry, what they long to see.
The task force also has created two teams that will work in the months ahead – one to present examples of “model programs” (concepts that others might learn from, that seem to be working); and one to write a vision statement for youth ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The task force has 15 members — 10 young people, ages 16 to 21, and five adults — and will meet again in September in Harrisburg, Pa.
At the Big Tent, the task force conducted more than 60 interviews, spending hours listening to the hopes that people have for youth ministry.
“I kept hearing over and over again the idea of hospitality,” of the broader church accompanying young people on their walk of faith, said Gina Yeager-Buckley, the PC(USA)’s associate for youth ministry.
Hakeem Jerome Jefferson of New Harmony Presbytery said another theme was the importance of the Presbyterian tradition.
“I wish we could count the number of times we heard the word `tradition,’ ” Jefferson said. But that can mean different things, from the value of the Reformed tradition to saying that in some places, “everything is done a certain way.”
Probably three-quarters of the people she spoke with referred to youth being “the future of the church,” said Jessie Light of Heartland Presbytery. But “that means they’re not thinking about the youth right now,” Light said. “The youth should be involved right now, should be taking on these leadership roles right now.”
Kelly Wiant-Thralls is associate pastor of Market Square Church in Harrisburg, and the chairperson of the task force. That “youth are the future” language grates, she said, because “they feel they’re already empowered to be leaders.”
Too often, adults “kind of dumb it down” when they talk to young people about faith, said Madison Munoz of St. Augustine Presbytery, instead of thinking that “if you give them leadership positions, they will rise.” She spoke of the importance of giving room and space for young people to raise questions about God and what they believe, “not being condescending and not treating them as children.”
The task force members talked about disconnects. What happens, for example, when a teenager wants to be involved with church, but her parents do not?
What about peer pressure — how is the faith of young people affected by what their friends think and say, about the culture around them?
Sometimes “the church seems to be concerned if we have an atheistic or agnostic in the youth group, but they’re there,” said Michelle Thomas-Bush, a minister from St. Augustine Presbytery. She heard repeatedly the idea of “giving them space to figure that out” and to let them ask “real questions – not just what we want them to question.”
Yeager-Buckley said there may be some tension in what adults think congregations should offer.
Some involved with youth ministry think “God is calling us to provide a clear message,” and not just to say “you’ll come to faith when you come to faith. They feel like we’ve been dangerous … or wishy-washy as Presbyterians, not helping kids to know `This is what we believe.’ ”
But others contend “we need to be in relationship. We need to be there” for young people — wherever they stand in their journeys of faith, Yeager-Buckley said.
“We need to know as young people that the church is not judging us based on who you are, whether you’re a Gothic person or gay,” Jefferson said. In the interviews, people spoke of the importance of inclusivity in church – and “not just tolerating them. Hypocrisy is big.”
People also spoke of the idea of authenticity. “They were looking for integrity and acceptance and transparency,” said Rex Espiritu, a minister from Whitewater Valley Presbytery. “Youth will spot right away whether they’re really being taken seriously.”
Members of the task force also are aware that those who come to the Big Tent don’t capture the breadth of the PC(USA). They were unlikely to find there, for example, teenagers who already feel disconnected from church, who are just going through the motions as long as their parents make them.
Is the PC(USA) relevant to young people?
There’s likely to be more than one answer.
Thomas-Bush said one interviewee described worship as “so distracting to young people, because it is so different from what they know. … Organ music is distracting to them. Sitting still for 40 minutes is distracting. I thought that was a fascinating way to look at it.”
But she also heard “that the Presbyterian church has a voice with young people. Over and over again, there was not any hesitation. That we have something unique to offer, we have a sense of identity. … They were lamenting that young people may not get that opportunity, that the Presbyterian church is rich with grace and love and belonging.”