This month, we asked our bloggers what it’s like to be the youngest Presbyterian in the room. Here’s what they shared.
Age is relative. It has been said that “old” is 15 years older than whatever you are right now. If you look at the age demographics of the church today, there is a high likelihood that someone in their 30s is among the youngest in the room – and that is definitely true if you’re clergy. Certainly, I have worshipped in and preached to a whole host of congregations where I was among the youngest in the room by more than 15 years. I have sat on more than one committee where I clearly filled the 18-35 age demographic requirement in order to create a “diverse” committee (and by default was expected to speak on behalf of 18-35 year olds everywhere). I am sure I have been given one or two opportunities when someone in the church said, “Let’s take a risk and invite a young person to do this.” And I’ve laughed away more than one unknowingly disparaging comment about being “a real pastor… someday.”
But I’m in my early 30s and I am the oldest member of the congregation I lead… by a decade. As a campus minister, my “congregation” comprises a motley group of energetic and creative 18-22 year olds. On an average week, I don’t spend much energy worrying about the font size of a bulletin, amplification for those who struggle to hear, mobility issues outside of the occasional sports injury, or whether my flock can navigate technology (most of the time, they’re teaching me). On an average week, I can count on providing pastoral care via text message, watching YouTube videos in between theological conversations and communicating all of the ministry’s news and events electronically. I’m called to be with them, but I’m the “old” one.
In this subset of the church, this works beautifully. The uniformity of needs and the transitional nature of this chapter of young adults’ lives makes it fitting that the church meet them where they are with intentionality and love. But we should proceed with caution. It is precisely this cloistering by age that can get us into trouble.
Age-specific ministries are certainly one way to help individuals get to know people like themselves and to feel like they belong. And don’t get me wrong, we all desperately want to belong. But we have come to believe that if we just come up with a place to “plug you in” by age, then you’ll “fit” in the church and our work here is done. If sub-grouping the church by age is the silver bullet solution to the church’s membership woes, then not only are we being naïve, but we are missing out on some of the gifts the church has to offer that few other places in our communities can.
To be divided up and set aside in the church by age cuts short opportunities for genuine relationship across generations that are desperately needed and relationships we might not find anywhere else. Even in the microcosm of campus ministry, the difference between a freshmen arriving at college and a senior walking across the graduation stage and into the professional world is lightyears. But my students regularly comment that campus ministry is one of the few places where they get to know people across grades. They don’t want to be put into a “freshmen small group.” They get enough of each other in their day-to-day lives. Even more than that, students recognize that they could go weeks without interacting with anyone outside their age demographic except their professor. Sunday morning worship may be the only time in the week they see families with children and grandparents.
The opportunity to be reminded of who we were as youth and where life can take us into adulthood is vital, not just to knowing our humanity more fully but to understanding the landscape of the kingdom of God. So we need each other, old and young together. To faithfully follow the Spirit, we desperately need old people to have visions and young people to dream dreams. And we need them to have relationships with each other where those visions and dreams can be heard and shared.
And so we need opportunities to be in relationship with each other. This means that seeing a college student or a young couple come into your church and saying, “Oh, we have a great young adult ministry” immediately closes off the conversation toward genuine relationship. Before we get separated out into groups by age, we must be patient and willing enough to share their lives that we can come to know one another, not by our labels but by what tugs at the heart strings of our soul.
If college ministry has anything to offer the church in furthering these relationships, it’s greatest evidence comes in students’ commitments to one another’s lives outside of our weekly worship. Ask for a phone number and invite someone to lunch. Pick an event you’re going to at the church and text to ask if they’re going too. When something comes up that’s difficult, let them know you’re praying for them. Introduce them to someone with a shared passion in the congregation, regardless of whether they’re the same age. It is the commitment to one another in all aspects of life that enables us to crack the outer shell of self-protection and enter into vulnerable spaces where both of us can better see Christ in each other. I, for one, am more than willing to be the youngest in the room… or the oldest in the room… if the people in the room care about me and make themselves vulnerable enough that I can care for them too.
KATIE OWEN AUMANN serves as the Presbyterian campus minister at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Katie is a graduate of Duke University (2006) and Columbia Theological Seminary (MDiv 2011). She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching and working with college students. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, reading novels and watching college basketball (Go Blue Devils!). She originally hails from Topeka, Kansas, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado. You can read more about Duke PCM here.