The Church and Young Adults
Our authors tell us stories of the challenges, struggles, and blessings of reaching out to and working with young adults.
Our thanks to the following writers: Susan Berg, Pullman, Washington; Christy Olson, North Branch, Minnesota; Kathy Haueisen Cashen, Houston, Texas; and Tracy Paschke-Johannes, Muncie, Indiana; William King, Blacksburg, Virginia; Matt Cleaver, Arlington, Texas; Kathy Fick, Grand Forks, North Dakota; Chris Tripolino, Cedar Falls, Iowa; Brent Christianson, Madison, Wisconsin.
We have also included a submission from Franz Schemmel, of Weatherford, Texas, which we had hoped to include in the January / February 2010 column, "Guardians of the Gospel
If you wish to reproduce one or more of these submissions in print and online publications, please contact Stephanie Frey at email@example.com
and she will forward your request to the author.
What Do You Want Me to Do?
Every pastor has met Erika, but those who serve on college campuses, places of social and intellectual flux, see her often. Like a rabbit sniffing the air and ready to bolt at the first sign of threat, she tentatively pokes her head into my study. "Do you have a minute?" she asks. The slight hitch in her voice conveys that she both desperately needs some attention and wonders if she's worthy of it. I welcome her in and gesture her to the overstuffed chair. She gathers herself, struggles to make eye contact, and begins....
From here the script has infinite variations. Perhaps Erika is a first-year student, fresh from a horrific encounter with the predatory culture of a frat party. Maybe she has just run across Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies, and wonders how she can continue being Lutheran — or Christian. It may be that her grades are sinking fast, her parents are breaking up, her boyfriend is headed for Iraq, or she is six weeks from graduation without a clue regarding what she will do with her new (and debt-laden) degree. Whatever the reason, her life feels like a Gordian knot.
I blush when I contemplate how many of these encounters I have botched. My need to have an answer has often rendered me deaf to the nuances of an Erika's halting words. Her hurt seemed so obvious, the presenting problem straightforward; only later did I realize I was only seeing the papery skin of a multilayered onion.
But sometimes I remember. My nomination for the most probing question in Scripture is the one Jesus asks Bartimaeus: "What do you want me to do for you?" (Mark 10:51). At first glance it is a dumb question: "He's blind, Jesus; what do you think he wants?" But when you sit with it for a while, you realize this simple question is an invitation to probe and recognize life's deepest longings.
So on my good days I listen intently and remember to let Jesus' question become my own: "Erika, child of God, what do you want me to do for you?" I seldom speak the actual words, but keeping the question in mind and letting it guide what I say helps both of us focus on what is most important in such moments. Ultimately, it is not me from whom Erika most needs something but the One to whom I point her.
Beyond its value as a pastoral care compass, our Lord's question needs to be at the forefront of our thinking about ministry to and with young adults. Afraid that we are losing their attention in a frenetic culture, we are tempted to anchor our ministry with youth to the newest technological gimmick or the hottest Christian rock. Alternately, we keep repeating old formulas, assuming we already know young adults' struggles, without asking whether our words speak to their deepest needs. Our witness and ministry should not merely be a pandering to felt needs but must begin by creating space for Jesus to address questing people with his call to searching self-discovery: "What do you want me to do for you?"
Law or Gospel?
"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." These were the words of Jesus to the rich young man in the Gospel text on the Sunday I was assigned to preach. We are probably like most ELCA churches, fairly small, middle class, predominantly white, with our fair share of senior citizens. How does this text speak to our congregation?
In my preparation for the sermon, these words of Jesus to go and sell everything felt like difficult words of law. Did they mean that people in our congregation might be called to go and sell everything? Could our congregation handle these harsh words of Jesus? Did he literally mean that some of us need to go and sell everything, or is it a metaphor for something else? Predictably, perhaps, I took a route that emphasized Jesus' later statement that "all things are possible with God." That was the gospel in this passage that balanced out the law in Jesus' command to go and sell everything, wasn't it?
That Sunday night after I preached, my cell phone rang. It was Andrew, a 20-year-old who grew up in our church, went through our youth ministry, and was now away at college in a town about four hours away. He had been to worship that morning at a Lutheran church and heard the same Gospel text and a similar sermon. Andrew wasn't quite persuaded by the perspective that the preacher had taken.
"Why don't we take Jesus at his word? In a world where we're all so attached to our stuff, doesn't it make sense for Jesus to command us to sell everything? What if there's not anything ‘deeper' spiritually speaking than our attachment to our possessions? Maybe selling everything we have would be the best thing we could do." For Andrew, Jesus' call to the rich young man to go and sell everything was not a command of the law. For Andrew, this command was freeing, it was energizing, it was gospel.
Young adults are not afraid of the radical claims and commands of Jesus. In fact, like Andrew, they are energized by a way of looking at the world that pushes back against the status quo of affluence, comfort, and self-preservation. They are willing to live according to a different ethic, an ethic more in line with the radical nature of Jesus. Young adults in our midst have the "ears to hear" the difficult words of Jesus, if only we will share them.
Live the Questions
I've been in ministry with young adults longer than most of the students I encounter have been alive. What keeps this ministry fresh and vital for me?
They do. The young adults who show up on campus every fall with their idealism, energy, and spontaneity keep me coming back. Each new semester, I find myself enrolled in regular seminars, "Following Jesus in This Time and Place," with these young adults.
There is reciprocity in our relationship. They are eager to expand their vocabulary of faith and I can help feed that hunger. They also want to show me what the church looks and sounds like from their perspective, and I am thrilled to look through those lenses and wear those ear buds with them.
The frame of the mirror in my office is an oversized question mark. It reminds me that evangelism with young adults is a call to live the questions that lead them to a deeper faith. Change is rapid in their disciplines of study; they assume the same will be true about the church. They aren't afraid to risk and fail, but they are afraid the larger church doesn't want to hear from them or can't make room for their gifts.
Jenny came with an edge to her faith questions. Her parents had disengaged from the church and left Jenny to decide for herself about matters of faith. She was angry at this spiritual neglect. "They haven't even given me the language to ask the questions I have!" Her words revealed her longing to articulate her hunger for the sacred.
Luke attended a seminar and heard about new scholarship on the Apostle Paul. He couldn't get enough of the stuff. He joined a Bible study to explore ways of reading Scripture, even changing his work schedule so that he could be there. He wanted to know how people could miss the radical nature of the gospel. "Haven't people in the church read this stuff?" he asked, holding up his Bible.
Marc e-mailed over the summer. "I'd like to chair the Service Learning Ministry Team this year," he wrote. His passion tripled the team's membership and its programming. A week didn't go by without a new opportunity for service by the young adults in our community.
Lisa was a high-profile student leader who had been hanging around the periphery of the organized church for a year. One morning she told me, "I'm ready to play piano in church." The next Sunday, she played the prelude. Near semester's end, she marched into my office and said, "This place needs to step up its outreach. You need me. I'm ready to help." She spent a year working on hospitality and outreach as a student intern, expanding our public presence on campus.
For these young adults, the church is a place of radical hospitality and compassion. They boldly bring their questions, insights, and dreams and are willing to tell the truth in love. The body of Christ is shaped not only by their spirit but also by their confidence that their gifts are valid and necessary for the health of this Christian community. I've promised them that this church wants them, needs them, will make room for them. Is it true?
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Losing Becomes Sending
"Where are all of the young adults?" I asked. "I just don't see them." I remember asking this question of the young woman who would later become my wife. We were beginning our transition back into the "real world" toward the end of our college career, and upon examination of our church, we saw no peers. After meeting with one of the pastors, we began a simple Bible study. I was terrified of asking people to join us, but grew in my ability at least to alert people that there was a study specifically for young adults. Finally, we began to nab a few young professionals and college students, and we started investing in them and growing with and from them. And then they left.
I don't think I had been told about how young adults do that. Yes, I could have told you a lot about relating to a transient young-adult culture. I could have told you some statistics about how much time they spend in a career or home, but I was oblivious to the fact that sooner or later serving the nomads of today would affect me personally.
After being engaged in ministry to young adults for the last five years, I am now beginning to see more clearly the picture Jesus painted for his disciples as he commissioned them to his service:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20).
I have had the amazing opportunity to really invest in young adults. I have had a part in making disciples. I knew that early on, but I didn't really have any clue what a disciple was. Disciples are simply people that we invest in. We try to draw out their gifts, help them hone their skills and thoughts, and then we send them out. That's what Jesus is doing in this passage. We may feel the blow of having them leave us — as we should if we are a supportive Christian community. But it's all the more reason to give a good sending and to rejoice in the spreading of the kingdom. Perhaps it's because he knows the sense of loss that this work creates that our Lord gives the simple reminder: I am with you always.
Cedar Falls, Iowa
We can be pretty serious here in Madison. This is a highly competitive school. The students I work with are very smart, very driven, and very open and eager to learn. Those who have passed through Lutheran Campus Ministry here have heard about Douglas John Hall (a lot!) and Tillich, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Father Martin, and, of course, JEDP, synoptics, the Johannine community, communicatio idiomatum (yes, really!), and the theological depths of The Far Side.
They're fun to learn with, but I've discovered in two decades of campus ministry that if God does things just for fun (e.g., Psalm 104:26b), it doesn't hurt God's children to play. I remember staying overnight in a vacant parsonage with our choir and hearing hysterical laughter and thumping. Investigating, I found they had formed a toboggan from cardboard and were using it to slide down the substantial staircase. That group included three future Ph.D.'s, two teachers, a business manager, and a church musician.
I've taken students to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota for 20 years, and I enjoy watching them encounter wilderness with childlike fascination and sometimes childish foolishness ("Yes, Jim, you really should have portaged around the waterfall." "What temperature did you expect the water to be on May 15?").
Out caroling one night years ago in a December snowstorm, I watched as a future stockbroker poured snow down the back of the woman with whom he would fall in love and marry. She's now a pediatrician.
Our students taped onto the door of the Campus Catholic Ministry, "95 Reasons the Catholics Should Play the Lutherans in Kickball" just as, unexpectedly, the Bishop of Madison walked around the corner. When we won the kickball game, the students posted "We Beat the Catholics in Kickball" on their homecoming float.
I've watched a future playwright and a visiting German student (a serious Saxon) sing their own version of "Anything you can do, I can do better." At the same dinner, another future pediatrician and future high school English teacher demonstrated the proper way to "shake one's booty." (They're married today, too.)
Campus ministry is a vitally important place where future faithful churchwomen and men are nurtured, educated, and trained. It is a vitally important place where the disciplines of faithfulness and the disciplines of the scientific world are found in the same people. It is a place of safety and sabbath on a busy campus.
But, thank God, it is also a place where God's children can play, having the opportunity to become like a child and rejoice entering the kingdom of God.
Invitation, Welcome, ConnectionLinking, Training, Nurturing
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12).
I had to do it. I just had to post this question as my Facebook status: "Hey 18- to 35-year-olds, how do you practice your faith and what keeps you connected to your faith community?" The range of answers was wide: singing in choir, helping with youth ministry, eating brunch weekly with a group of friends after worship, attending a book study group, serving in the community, playing cards, and (my favorite) — drinking beer. There were many more responses — but all had a common theme: invitation, welcome, and connection.
I serve as the director of Family and Youth Ministries at the only ELCA congregation in our university town. With nearly 18,000 university students, there are plenty of opportunities for meeting 18- to 35-year-olds. Intentional ministry with this age group can be challenging and elusive — but the rewards are phenomenal!
Over the years, our congregation has constructed creative events and entry points intended to help invite college-aged individuals. We have educated ourselves about how to welcome newcomers, including young adults from our transient town. Our biggest challenge is discovering how to more intentionally integrate new folks into the community, and determining how to help them identify what they need from the community and what they bring to the community.
What is a particular person seeking? An extended family? A faith-based peer group? A place to serve? We simply do not know unless we take time to engage with the stranger in a more meaningful way, asking questions that get beyond politeness and niceties. This requires energy, enthusiasm, time, persistence, and authenticity; but most important, a deep sense of curiosity about our neighbors and a desire to love and serve them. It also requires encouragement and training. How many of our congregations provide any sort of guidance or education about going beyond weather chitchat? Furthermore, how many congregations teach their teens about what it means to be part of the faith community beyond youth group? Do we set them up for a faith-life freefall by not intentionally including them in the full life of the congregation? Serving in a university town has forced our youth leadership team to think about how we are nurturing our teens for full membership in the life of the congregation now and in the future.
The Corinthians text reminds me that we are all part of the body. How do we help each other discover our gifts, needs, and vocations? I am certain about one thing: the answer has to do with intentional relationships and intentional conversations.
The question is asked, "Where are the young adults in our congregations?" The other side of the question is, "Where is the church in the life of young adults?"
Today's young adults are in the world, of the world, and a gift to our world. They are an inclusive group. They are technically savvy beyond texting and computer skills, and are involved in social networking in ways that most of us do not even understand. They strive for excellence and care deeply about the world. Through ministry internship opportunities it is possible to link, train, and nurture our young adults.
Internships, both paid and unpaid, have become a necessary item on resumés and curriculum vitae. In the church, young adults can be linked to assist with school-age summer programs, youth ministry, outdoor worship, mission, community outreach, and senior care. Imagine linking a youth who needs free rent with an older lonely adult who has a room available. Linking comes through staff who know the congregation and can imagine possibilities.
Every training experience that a young adult has, without the burden of tuition, is a plus. A preschool or day care needs to train workers in CPR and first aid on a yearly basis. Why not offer free CPR and first aid training to any young adult willing to spend the time? Community sport organizations train people to use a defibrillator. Send young adults to the defibrillator training! Search state and community training events for such things as native prairie restoration and send young adults. Offer training to young adults with no strings attached, and trust that God will find a way for their skills to be used.
Nurturing the faith development of young adults may seem impossible. There is no paper curriculum that works for today's young adults. This is a "Where are you?" and "What's out there?" situation. Wherever young adults meet — around food, fun, or books and technology — there is the place to engage. Young adults want to know more, so bring a list of Web sites and sit around a table with laptops, cell phones, and other technology. Explore the possibilities and ask often, "What's out there?" Talk about the place of faith in what is present.
Three of the best years of my life were working with young-adult summer ministry interns. Were they always present at the 8 a.m. worship? No. Did they give millions of dollars to the mission of the church? No. But they do bring an energy and knowledge of the world that enriches congregational life. Get ready to feel the rush of the Holy Spirit as you link, train, and nurture the gifts of young adults.
North Branch, Minnesota
In my years as executive director at Lutherhill in Texas I saw the enormous impact camp has on the young adults who work there. My first couple of summers I tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage young adults to get more sleep during the 10-day staff training period. Eventually I realized their hunger for face-to-face conversations without the usual peer pressure of school superseded their need for sleep.
Pastor Eric Reimer, a staff veteran of seven summers at Bear Creek in Pennsylvania, put it this way, "My church youth group was where my parents took me, and camp was where I wanted to go. I felt welcome in that community in ways I did not feel welcome anywhere else. There was no pretense there to be ‘cool.' My experience at camp is the reason I'm a Christian today."
Summer camp jobs have led to future career choices for hundreds of young adults. Beth Hartfiel, director of Youth and Family Ministries at New Life in Pearland, Texas, credits her five years working at Camp Chrysalis and Lutherhill in Texas with her current career path. "I went to work at camp because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Little did I know that I would grow in my faith as much as I did, and that it would be at camp where I first really felt the calling into youth ministry."
A summer camp position often influences future work values. Pastor Andrew Genszler credits his many years at Camp Mowana in Ohio with his vision for his current work as director of advocacy for the ELCA. "I bring to advocacy work a vision of discipleship and building relationships with people — things I learned in practice growing up at Camp Mowana. I would not be in the ELCA today if it were not for Camp Mowana. My experience there brought together a number of aspects of faith that appeal to me: community, care of creation, and ecology; and hope for the future. Plus, it was the most fun job I've ever had."
Working on a camp staff teaches quick creative thinking as staff keep campers busy and out of trouble. It teaches patience ... for Nelson to tie his shoes, for Kaitlin to finish changing, for worship to start ... for the rain to stop ... for the last parents to pick up their camper. It teaches teamwork as all staff do their part to keep the camp running smoothly. It provides opportunities to talk about all sorts of topics from one's faith to how to resolve conflicts among campers. It develops people skills as staff members interact with children of many ages, backgrounds, and temperaments. Staff members also work with pastors and congregational staff, parents, peers, and camp kitchen, office, and maintenance personnel.
If you want to help young adults grow in their faith as they prepare for future vocations, encourage them to work at camp this summer. They'll be glad you did.
Kathy Haueisen Cashen
Vine and Branches
It is Mother's Day. At church, preschool children bestow upon their mothers dirt-caked flowers in plastic cups decorated with glitter glue. Adult children grace their mothers with their presence during a semiannual pilgrimage to church. Elderly women are honored with corsages, symbolizing reverence for these most senior life-givers and nurturers.
Angela's face was flushed, her eyes brimming with tears. Instead of receiving a glitter glue flower cup, Angela was given word on Friday that her latest round of fertility treatments had failed. Another year of doctor's visits, disrupted adoptions, and heartbreak — she still can't call herself "mom." Through a hard-fought smile and with tears streaming down her cheeks, Angela spoke to me the obligatory, "Happy Mother's Day." We embraced.
Mother's Day, Father's Day, Sunday school, Easter egg hunts, Christmas pageants, vacation Bible school — our varied church activities provide socialization and support to young adults raising their families in the faith. Young adults often return to the church after starting families with the hope of finding a community to welcome them in this new stage of life. However, no matter how welcoming we may be, church is also a place where those living with the sting of infertility are reminded of the empty place in their hearts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of women ages 15-44 suffer from infertility. Compounded with fertility treatment failures and adoption disruptions, the pain of families is immeasurable. Often, young adults who experience these silent losses grieve in private and never have the opportunity to mourn their loss with others who have had similar histories.
The silent loss of a family should not be borne alone. As the living church, we are called to be a place of healing and hope. To live out this call, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Muncie, Indiana, designed a Service of Silent Loss. Using Scripture, liturgy, and song, we have created a service where people can name their losses and be embraced by a Christian community. During the service, participants are invited to come forward and write down their loss — to give a name to what is often kept silent. We end the service by processing to a garden plot prepared on the church grounds where we plant perennials, signifying the new life we have in Christ.
"I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit" (John 15:5).
The vines of our lives grow up with one another, enveloping one another's stories. Thorns pierce our skin, stinging. But fresh buds also grow alongside the thorns, showing the promise of new life. Through the Service of Silent Loss, we attempt to reach out to young adults who have felt the sting of infertility. By naming what was once silent, we are living branches surrounding those in pain, creating a safe place to grieve.
One Day I Met a Preacher
(a submission to the "Guardians of the Gospel" column, January / February 2010)
It's the day before my daughter Rachel's wedding. We're running errands, anxious about many things. It's hot — way over 90 — and Rachel is thirsty, so we stop at a convenience store. Rachel hops out, I stay at the wheel. There's an obviously homeless man standing by the entrance, a few feet from the car. We make eye contact.
Hey man, have you got a cigarette?
I know what it's like to want a cigarette. And he's not asking for money.
Sorry, man, I quit smoking a few years ago. But I'll tell you what, I've got a couple dollars for you. Maybe you can buy a cigarette inside.
Wow, thanks, man.
Man, I can't believe you gave me money for cigarettes. You are just like Jesus.
Haven't you ever heard about Jesus?
Well, sure, some.
It's all in the Bible. He was God's son. And he came to this world and he loved everybody. He didn't care who you were, he was good to you.
I've heard that.
And do you know what happened to him?
Well they took him, arrested him, you know, and they told all kinds of lies about him. And then they gave him to the soldiers and they really beat him up. I mean they punched him and kicked him and slapped him and then they tied him up and whipped him. And then one guy, he took some thorns and made some kind of a crown and smashed it down on Jesus' head, right down to the bone. And they weren't done with him yet.
What do you mean?
They took him up a hill and nailed him to a cross and let him hang there and die.
And you know what the worst thing is?
I shake my head.
They weren't even ashamed, how they done him that way.
I shake my head again.
No, man, don't worry. It's all good. He rose up from the dead and now he's in heaven with God. And now he wants one thing.
He wants you to like him.
This I really haven't heard before.
Yeah. Like him. You don't even have to like him much. All he wants is for you to like him, even just a little bit.
I remember last Sunday's lesson. Here's me, standing before the congregation:
The Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning in chapter 10.
Glory to you, O Lord.
Jesus said to the twelve: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
I think to myself, "I want that reward." I pull out a twenty dollar bill.
Hey, I've got something else for you.
I hand him the twenty. The grin on his face almost makes me cry.
Man, you really are like Jesus.
I don't think I'd say that at all, but I know this: You are one heckuva preacher.
Rachel's now back in the car. I start to pull away.
Hey, one more thing.
My name. It's Robert. When you get to heaven, you look for me.
I will, yes, I will.
Yes, Robert, I definitely will.
This article appeared in the March / April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 2) and Lutheran Partners Online.