By Eddie Pipkin

Welcome back to the blog after a brief summertime hiatus.  Hope you are finding some rest, relaxation, and revival, but the apocalyptic news keeps rolling in, and the normal routine of the laid-back summer slowdown is a casualty of the pandemic and social unrest as so many parts of our normal routine have been.  A few weeks ago, when last we wrote in this space, we talked about ways to respond meaningfully to calls for social justice, and it’s been interesting in the interim to watch the church navigate a course forward while simultaneously inventing a way to reopen “in person” worship in the midst of the COVID crisis.  One thing — one opportunity — has stood out to me dramatically: now is the time to give young people the floor.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that this premise seems perhaps at odds with our recent series on “guiding principles for ministry,” but it’s not.  We’ve been fans for a long time of two principles we love to see local churches live out:

  • A diversity of voices and perspectives in leadership, particularly in community-facing ministry such as worship and social media.
  • A generational pivot to young people and their perspectives.

I don’t mean handing over the keys to the “ministry car” to young people and shuffling quietly inside to settle into the rocking chair and pull up the comforter over our aching bones (written from the perspective of the middle-aged ministry leader that so many of us are), but a partnership that pairs the life-wisdom of decades of mission and ministry with the enthusiasm and fresh takes of the 20-and-30-year-olds among us (and, of course, the youth group and even the kids – they have useful insights in these changing times).  The church’s response in the weeks following the George Floyd killing has been vigorous and heartfelt, but the statements issued and the chat sessions convened have reflected carefully crafted consensus committee statements and gently curated expressions of empathy and prayer.

That’s good stuff, but let’s hand the young people the microphone.

In the spirit of that premise, I wanted to share with you excerpts from some emails I have exchanged with a ministry friend in her mid-20s who is in graduate school actively studying issues of social justice. She was raised in the evangelical church in the deep South, has a profound faith life, and is part of a group of young people and their parents who have been ZOOM conferencing periodically to talk about these issues.  I had posed the question about the church’s responsibility in responding to the dramatic news of these past several weeks, and she responded:

— My biggest opinion on this question is the church’s responsibility to take an active stance to speak on the ways of Jesus. While I feel that this should be an obvious response, it seems that so many stray away from these issues so as not to ruffle any feathers or bring stress to members. I was speaking with one of my pastor friends last week, and when she wanted to bring up the conversation in her small group, she had a woman approach her later saying that she wanted church to be “her happy place” and to not bring this up in future meetings. This confuses me, as I’ve never really seen Jesus as solely a bubbly guy handing out flowers to spectators after preaching on exclusively positive topics. Definitely, I find great joy in a relationship with Jesus, but to be honest, I feel that it is often challenging and uncomfortable. My friend also talked about her concern of discussing race issues specifically, as this kind of discussion could cloud the way for members to hear the good news and all the other things that we preach in church (that controversial topics might affect their buy-in of the church as a whole or turn them off to attending). This was also confusing to me, because I feel that learning about Jesus requires learning about the tough parts, and that maybe you’ve missed the full picture if you don’t see him in racial reconciliation. Still, I think church leaders can approach this conversation in a healthy and loving way. As Ibram X. Kendi says, it is no longer enough to “not be racist,” but we have to instead be anti-racist, where we recognize systems and structures in place preventing equality and we actively work to change them. In my opinion, the church has a higher responsibility to this because of our commitment to Jesus.

Some thoughts on how to do this:

— Ensure curriculum furthers the narrative on racial reconciliation (something I hadn’t fully thought of until I did a research paper on gender roles in the church . . . Sunday school curriculum is very gendered, and it paints a picture of cultural norms and beliefs about women, which are then reinforced over and over.) What language are we using in the curriculum? What is the overall message learned and how is it applied? Also, communication in general — How are sermons being communicated so that everyone feels heard and understood? What is the messaging from leaders during events and weeks such as these?

— Representation of people of color in leadership positions, worship teams, etc. This is a difficult one for me to think through, and I’ve talked to pastors who have trouble with diversity, either on staff or represented in their congregations. I do feel that a small level of this diversity representation could be seen through materials chosen for video studies, sermons, book clubs, guest speakers, etc. Whose voices are we listening to? One of the ways in which my program is working toward this is by ensuring syllabi readings feature more diverse authors (something I would have never thought of in undergrad).

— How are we serving and where do our resources go? I think it says a lot about a church’s heart based on where their outreach is. Churches can include organizations that are working to progress racial justice and volunteer their time to advance these efforts. Additionally, sending out resources for congregations to learn and give is helpful and shows support.

— Action plan — I think this might be the most important for the now (which then ideally transfers into the long-term objectives). Many businesses or churches will send out emails or release statements on their commitment to change and their support for all people, but the ones that actually lay out an action plan spoke much louder. Churches can do this also, where they are transparent with their plans for change but also vulnerable to any possible suggestions or feedback. It holds us all accountable to move forward.

Those are her thoughts, a real-time processing of the issues within the context of an email exchange, but indicative of the kinds of conversations we can and should be having.  The perspectives of 60-year-olds and 25-year-olds are often from very different vantages.  The role of our young disciples in this moment stands out:

  • It is mind (and soul) expanding to share our experiences and perspectives across the generational divide.  Churches should be providing venues for this to happen.
  • This issue is of critical importance to the younger generations.  It is crucial that we acknowledge that fact and engage them in leadership and development of “action plans” moving forward, so that we bring substance to our constant claim that “they are the future” (and an acknowledgement that we get it that they are not only the future, but the energetic, dynamic, relevant present).
  • Their passionate views and absence of some of our generational hangups on these social justice issues can help move us forward in our own need to change.

We can give our passionate younger folks some meaningful leadership on this topic.  While we are prone to treat controversial topics with kid gloves and carefully measured statements, we can trust them to help us move forward with “hard conversations,” and hard conversations should always be a part of our mature lives as disciples of Jesus.  We can solicit their words and share them with our congregations.  We can ask them to help design and manage forums by which these conversations happen.  We can ask them for guidance on what to read and watch and listen to in order to broaden our own perspectives.

I have seen a lot of sincere words out there about a commitment to change, but there has not been a lot in the way of “action plans.”  The young people say, “What will ultimately change without commitments to specific changes?”

In a later email, my young friend added these thoughts, which bubbled up out of an exchange she had with her peers who were discussing these topics:

We talked of how Sunday at 11 a.m. might be the most segregated hour in America, but that most churches would say they want more diversity represented in their congregations. But where is the line between actually wanting diversity and a cultural merge or just wanting to invite others to really only submit to the dominant culture that is already present?

I’ve thought about this a bit in the context of education — that simply improving diversity numbers in schools might not do much to truly address power dynamics, but instead puts more pressure on Black students to, in some ways, “trade in” their identity for the sake of diversity and to appease white people. How do we as church members and leaders ensure our drive for diversity does not lead to this unfortunate outcome?

Maybe that’s why true anti-racist actions or acceptance of diversity sometimes feels uncomfortable, because we are only okay with it on a very low level, when our own structures are not really changed or challenged. I feel this also has to do with white fragility – “I’m totally okay with being anti-racist, but only if I just have to give a little slack, just a hint of power.”

Those are tough and uncomfortable questions: God bless her and her friends for asking them, for wrestling with solutions, for challenging us to be unafraid of the hard and uncomfortable conversations.  Are we going to give a nod to this moment in time with brief words of lament and hope, or are we going to commit to hard conversations and experiments in change for the long haul?  Young people are key to those answers.

What “action plans” has your congregation developed, or what is the process that is in play to develop such “action plans”?  How big a part of this conversation have young people been in your local church?  Have you made an explicit attempt to solicit their unique views and give them a public voice in the discussion?