Reclaiming the Gospel for the NEXT leaders

(An article based on a speech delivered at the second NEXT Conference, held Feb. 26 at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas.)

There has been a rebirth of a young people’s movement founded on commitment to community service and social justice. Most high school students can’t graduate without having performed some community service. Selective colleges, grad schools and even employers expect applicants to have a solid record of service. This movement has reawakened the consciousness of educators and students alike and has pushed us forward as we seek to do good in the world.


Great divorce between faith and service

And yet there is something profoundly missing. There has been, as I see it, a great separation between faith and service in this community service world. So much so that I call the discontent between faith and service the Great Divorce. With notable exceptions, the church is not leading the community service movement, and with notable exceptions, the young adults that serve and lead are not centering their engagement and activism in the church.


How did this happen?

How did this Great Divorce between faith and service happen? Two major factors contributed to this new reality.

As service grew and grew mostly because of the rise of student leadership and voice, colleges and universities moved the service components out of the chaplain’s office. They often went to the dean of students’ office and then the provost’s office and further and further away from the faith tradition that had spurred them on.

But it wasn’t just the schools. The churches, with important exceptions, abandoned the role of forming and leading the major service experiences in their lives, especially beginning with college and beyond. For example, out of the 100,000 full-time volunteer opportunities filled by young adults every year, just 2,000 are placed through faith-based programming like Lutheran Volunteer Corps, AVADAH and our own Young Adult Volunteer Program.


Church and young adults at odds

And because of this divorce we find ourselves at odds.

Churches are upset because young people don’t come through the doors for the 11:00 worship service and may not show interest in putting money in the collection plate, staying for coffee hour, singing in the choirs or running the youth group. When they do come, they often do not return.

Clergy get upset with the all-too-familiar notion that this is a generation that is “spiritual but not religious.” And yet when we dismiss this as a concept, we fail to recognize the opportunity for invitation and inquiry. We don’t pay attention to the fact that the majority of all participants in Teach for America say their faith is important to them and a reason for why they serve. We need to know that over 70 percent of students that serve in a program as diverse as the Bonner Scholars Program do it because of their spiritual sense of themselves

For their part I have found that many young adults do not feel like the church cares about them or the causes they care about and are committed to.

I fear that rather than entering a period of reawakening, we have headed for the “Final Great Slumber.” We need to wake up, given what is at stake; we need to wake up now.


Two crises

As I see it there are two impending crises.

The first will come from the burnout that many of these young adults will face as they continue to serve in our communities. While the church may not be what is compelling people to serve, we know that faith and faith communities sustain engagement. When one is engaged in fights that never end and causes that are never conquered, being faithful eventually must replace the hope of being successful.

For the church, the other challenge will be to remain relevant and vibrant and become a place where a generation invests itself because it is the place that balances innovation with tradition, and values creativity over status quo.


Getting started

So the message here is that we need to engage in the community service and social justice movement that this generation has brought to the world. We do not need to compete with it or control it. Instead we must meet it with our whole self and demonstrate authentic integrity as we connect the message of the Gospel to the lives of those who are serving.

So how do we reach out to a generation of activists that are skeptical about religion and in particular about Christianity?


Fixing an image problem

First we have to start off with the fact that we have an image problem. Gabe Lyons, in his book “Unchristian,” reports that the impression Christians make upon non-Christians is that we are unwelcoming, narrow-minded and judgmental. The result of this sentiment is that many young adults who might identify themselves as Christians do not want to publicly associate with a brand that has so many negative attitudes and viewpoints.

What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be Presbyterian? The other day I landed at the Charlotte airport and as I drove out of the rent-a-car lot and onto the highway I saw a big billboard that read: “Presbyterian Saved My Life.” Well there, I thought, that’s a pretty good message for the church to be sending to the community! As I got closer to the billboard, I saw that it was an advertisement for a hospital. While it is not a bad thing to be associated with hospitals or senior living communities, there has to be something more.

I have been struck by the fact that the Quaker community has been able to present itself publicly in such a way that people perceive Quaker to mean something. It means anti-war, peace activism and commitment to community and consensus.

What would someone say was the defining characteristic of what it means to be Presbyterian? With my father a Presbyterian minister, I grew up without really knowing what it meant. What I did know was that there were always people coming in and out of our house. College students would come for the free food, and married couples would come to get away from their kids and the older folks would come and not leave. I remember people like Christy Wilson, the missionary from Afghanistan, coming to stay with us and only traveling with a toothbrush.

The late Dr. James Loder shared with us in class that the last creature to discover water is fish. And so it took me a long time to discover that the hospitality that I grew up with was the Gospel coming to life in my life and that it gave definition to me as to what it meant to be a Presbyterian.

And so today I call on us to claim that sacred practice of hospitality as defined by who we are as a people and how we present ourselves to the world.



And it is through this ideal of hospitality that I see a way for us to fully engage and become a defining part of the community service moment and begin to reconcile the split that has kept us apart.

We know a few things. We know that young people are committed to serve and that thousands are leaving college and taking on full-time service internships. But the contrast is usually stark. College students go from having a place to sleep, food to eat, fellowship with other students and faculty and a schedule that they can manage. They leave that environment often to find themselves in a new city, not knowing anyone, not knowing where they will live, surviving on a tight food budget and more than likely in a very difficult job tackling some of the most complex social issues of the day.

For many — and I would dare say for most — a long loneliness sets in. Over the past year, I have been traveling through the country to events held by Volunteers Exploring Vocation, an initiative lead by Jim Ellison. We gather current and former volunteers for a weekend of fellowship, discernment and spiritual practice. One of the exercises we do is lecto divino, but this year, rather than doing it with sacred text, we have used a paragraph out of the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. In her autobiography, Dorothy Day writes:

While I lived in the east side, I felt the spell of the long loneliness descend on me. In all that great city of seven million, I found no friends; I had no work; I was separated from my fellows. Silence in the midst of city noises oppressed me. My own silence, the feeling that I had no one to talk to overwhelmed me so that my very throat was constricted; my heart was heavy with unuttered thoughts; I wanted to weep my loneliness away … And yet … I wanted to go and live among [the impoverished in Chicago]; in some mysterious way I felt that I would never be freed from this burden of loneliness and sorrow unless I did.”


When we read this passage, it seemed as if everyone in the room could be the author. There are tears of acknowledgement but also a spirit of joy that comes when we are together and the loneliness retreats. There is a long loneliness born out of a decision to immerse oneself in a cause without a community to call upon when you want to talk, cry, discuss, have a home-cooked dinner, do your laundry and talk to a mentor about vocational discernment.

And so we have sought ways to break through that long loneliness, to be present and involved, to care about this population, many of whom have just arrived in our communities.


AmeriCorps chaplain

It was a year ago on the first day of the NEXT conference that I stood up during an open mike and introduced myself as an AmeriCorps chaplain. It was an idea that came to me while sitting in the pews of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. I thought that if my dad could serve in the Navy as a chaplain for the armed services, why shouldn’t there be chaplains for national service today to support young men and woman who are making commitments to serve their country in local communities?

When I returned to Atlanta to try out this new role, I made an appointment to visit Shyam Kumar, director of program at the regional office for Teach for America, which places hundreds of new members in the greater metro area every year. And what he told me was that, for the past five years, not one member of the clergy had come to call on his people to welcome them to the city or to invite them to church.

When these young adults leave college and venture to your communities, they do so with a sense of courage and vulnerability. By being present in their lives, even if it is just to greet them with a cup of coffee at the airport or by inviting them to dinner on Thursday night, it is an act of hospitality that offers us a chance to live out our faith and to walk with them in theirs.

If we do not invite them, if we do not seek them out, if we do not make church relevant, if we do not share our story of commitment to the same cause that they have, we will not only fail to capture their imagination, but we will also fail in our roles as Christians to share God’s love and to be present in their lives.

Caring and ministering to this population is important. Yet there is something more at stake besides being present and pastoral.

What happens when the Gospel story comes to life in the service world? The powerful message of Jesus and the love that he both offers us and requires of us calls us to go deeper in our engagement and commitments. When we do this, we are compelled to move from “random acts of kindness” to strategic engagement for social justice. And it is through the Gospel story coming to life that we move from acts of service learning to a prophetic choice to advocate and to stand with the marginalized. The Gospel awakens us, inspires us, directs us, sustains us and fulfills us.


Houses of hospitality

Eighteen months ago these conversations around young adults and hospitality led us to an event at Stony Point conference center in New York where 30 of us gathered under the leadership of Rick Ufford Chase. Clergy and lay leaders, young and old, seminary professors, leaders out of Louisville, students and community organizers were all part of the mix.

The approach we fixed upon borrowed on the best practices of programs like YAV, as well as from Shane Claiborne and the new monastic movement. We also tapped into the reality that there were often hundreds of young adults serving in the community through secular programs, doing similar if not the same work that YAVs have been doing. We came to see that we could provide an intentional Christian living experience for those who were part of programs that already existed and where their stipends were funded by someone else. So we launched the Hospitality House Movement. Since that time:

At Waynesburg College in southwestern Pennsylvania, a student, Kyle Kooyers, and five other graduating seniors established a House of Hospitality and found everyone part-time jobs that enabled them to remain in this rural community and to continue their service and ministry in an area that they had grown to love while in college.

Austin Seminary, under the innovation of Jack Brandon, turned an unused dormitory into a House of Hospitality for AmeriCorps volunteers who work in and around the city. Six young adults now live together and have the experience of campus as well as community life.

In New Orleans, under the leadership of Jean Marie Peacock and Kathy Lee, we teamed up with the Young Adult Volunteer program and integrated AmeriCorps and YAV programs that were both serving with Project Homecoming.

At Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, Bill Golderer transformed the manse of Arch Street Presbyterian into a community space for three young adults who moved in while serving as part of the AmeriCorps Notre Dame Mission Volunteers.

In Trenton, New Jersey, under the leadership of elder Jacque Howard, the manse of the now closed Bethany Church was turned into a House of Hospitality for four residents doing AmeriCorps and VISTA placements through the Bonner Foundation. It is the cornerstone activity for a prophetic vision as to how the church will help lead the transformation of the city.


Game plan

And so we are encouraging other congregations and educational institutions to create similar types of centers of hospitality. We have developed some prototypes and resources, including a curriculum to facilitate weekly conversation and guidelines on how to structure a rule for community life. We have stories of failure and joy to share and perhaps a little money to help a church get started. It should be noted that these efforts, while they share a common energy and a complementary vision, are independent initiatives and work on their own.

I would go on to say that for some congregations launching a House of Hospitality might be too much or not the right first step. In those cases we are encouraging congregations to:

» Open the homes of congregants and invite young adults serving in the community to live in a room that is no longer being used by a family member.

 » Invite young adults who are moving to your communities to stay on your church floors for a week or two as they transition into their new lives and find a more permanent place to live.  

 » Prepare a table of food and fellowship on a weekly basis while providing focused conversation on social issues, community living and faith formation using the curriculum we have developed known as Vespers.

 » Host a monthly community film series or a weeklong community film festival that is being developed under the leadership of Mackey Alston of Auburn Seminary that focuses on the integration between faith and service.


Next steps

Welcoming and offering hospitality is not the final act. Indeed it is the beginning and it is ongoing.

Once we have reclaimed and lived out our Christian call to hospitality, we now must focus our efforts on how we support, educate and follow a new generation of church leaders and members. We must do that at both the local and national level. We have to put ourselves in a position where we are prepared to support a new generation and be informed by this generation to lead us. And to be clear, they will lead us to places that that are unfamiliar and even make us uncomfortable. Einstein wrote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

I am grateful for this moment. Today I am more proud to be Presbyterian than I ever have been. We are inspired and instructed by the words of the poet Maya Angelou: “The Horizon leans forward, offering us space to place new steps of change.” We have seen a new vision and set our sights on that horizon, and today is the day that the new journey begins, together.


WAYNE MEISEL is director of faith and service at the Cousins Foundation, a philantropic organization based in Atlanta. He is also an ordained Presbyterian minister.