Tag Archives: youth

30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.

Want to make a mainline protestant uncomfortable? Ask for prayer. Out loud prayer.

Some of the most powerful experiences in my ministry have involved prayer. More specifically, they have involved other people praying or forcing me to pray. This is because I am Lutheran, and public and partnered prayer make me wicked uncomfortable (more on that later). When I was a youth director, my mission trips were insane. Ask anyone. They were awesome, but they were totally insane. One summer, my youth, a brave volunteer, and myself headed  CLE –> CHI –> MPLS. We were going to be really late getting to Redeemer Lutheran in MPLS, but that said that would be fine. They had a prayer service at six pm and they could let us in. We weren’t getting in until at least nine pm, so I was nervous. No way would a Lutheran prayer service still be happening after three hours. We arrived a little after nine and the church was unlocked. In the sanctuary there was a group of people drumming and praying. They prayed for us and our journey, for the lives of our youth and their families back home. We were all flabbergasted. Lutherans praying for hours? My kids couldn’t stop talking about it. They loved it. They wanted more.

A few summers later, we went from a coal town in WV –> Asheville –> Charleston. In WV, we were participating in a YouthWorks trip. At the end of the trip, there was a worship service during which the leaders were asked to lay hands on the kids and pray (yes, I know how wrong that sounds. Minds out of the gutter, please). I was TERRIFIED. I was going to have to be really, really intimate with these kids. Some of them I knew way better than others. I hate praying out loud with others. Too much intimacy, too much pressure, too many eyes on me (yes, I know that it’s not about me. But it is). All of those eyes on me meant I had to do it. So I went around and prayed for my kids and my volunteers, one by one. I was totally panicking inside, asking God for words. Please, God, give me words. And God did provide. None of the kids ever said anything to me about it, but I heard from parents afterward that the experience was incredibly powerful for my kids. It was one of the things they talked about most. And me? I discovered (again) the power of prayer.

This past Tuesday, in my Indigenous Ways of Knowing class, our teacher (a Lakota chief) opened up the class in song and prayer (as he always does). I realized that this has NEVER happened during my time in seminary. Maybe at my last seminary; that was a long time ago. But certainly not in the past semester (and if it happened at all at my last seminary, I venture a guess that it was not often). This seemed weird to me. Does it seem weird to you? I asked a professor about it and she said that there are some people who don’t think it is appropriate, that prayer is not what we are here to do. We are here for intellectual pursuits. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!!! For real? I’m learning to be a pastor. I will spend a shit ton of my time praying (that is a mathematical term, btw. The vulgar system of measurement). Apparently, this is another thing we are already supposed to know how to do and/or will learn during teaching parish/CPE/internship. We pray before meals, giving thanks for the food and the hands that have prepared it, asking that it nourish our bodies. Shouldn’t we do the same with the information that goes into our heads? A little giving thanks for the people who have gone before us and shaped out theology and a request that it shape our brains for good gospel witness to the world?

This isn’t just about prayer in seminary. This is about prayer in our lives. Most mainline protestants I know are as terrified of one-on-one prayer as I am. We do it because we have to, and we generally only do it when someone is sick or dying or otherwise really needs our help. Often, we wait until we are asked. I am in this boat too. A few weeks back, a student from another denomination started class with an activity that involved one-on-one prayer. My partner was the professor. We nervously chatted the whole time. What is it about praying with another person that is so frightening?

This is what I feel like doing when asked to pray.

When we pray, we are naked. We are needy. We are vulnerable. Most people, particularly most leaders, don’t want to be seen that way. We don’t want to bring our open wounds into the public arena. We don’t want to ask for help from someone else (many of us have a hard enough time asking for help from God), we don’t want to open ourselves up that much. We want to be strong, perfect leader-types. But we aren’t perfect. We are just as broken as our parishioners, just as broken as the rest of the body of Christ.

Prayer, more than almost anything else we do, forces us to give up power. In prayer, the power is God’s. We have to let go of ourself and let God come through. We have to stop making it about us and make it about God and the other person/people in the room. Are we afraid our prayer will reveal how weak our own prayer life is? How tenuous our own relationship with God is? Many of us are afraid we might say the wrong thing. This is where depending on God comes in. And, if I say the wrong thing, chances are no one will notice. If I say a really wrong thing, I’ll apologize. It will happen. It is a part of our brokenness. That’s ok.

Whatever our problems with prayer might be, whatever it is that makes so many of us react to a mention of prayer with resignation, internal panic or the sudden desire to run away (or any combination thereof), we have to get over it.  Because prayer has a profound effect on those with whom we pray and on our own damaged souls.

Sometime in the next few days, ask someone to pray with you. I dare you. Be careful: if you ask me, I just might take you up on it. I gotta get over myself. True story. Maybe you do too.

A lesson from Rev. Hammer: