What follows below is a reflection on day 1 of the ELCA Churchwide assembly. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary as a denomination. I’m writing this post on an iPad during the second day sessions, so I apologize for any weirdness below.
I have aged out of being a young adult. Let me explain.
I am the voting delegate from the Metro-New York synod who is the young adult representative. In theory, I am the right generation. Since Rachel Held Evans has been tapped to be a speaker for my generation, I consider her to be the bell weather for who is in and who is out. I’m a year younger than her! I should be young! But…I really am not because I no longer fit the mold of what the church defines as a young adult. I’m married, with a kid, and seem to have a direction in my life. I’ve graduated, in a sense, from the (partially class-based view) in what it means to be a young adult. And that’s fine. But I really do not get what the church is trying to do with young adults.
After the first day, which involved iPad orientation (we’re paperless), reading of the rules, and first ballot for presiding bishop, the young adults gathered for dinner together. About 17% of those gathered are considered young adults which is good. It could be higher but it is not terrible. I serve at a youngish church and that’s about the same percentage we get on Sunday. So we sat together at tables, chatted for a moment, started to get to know each other, and then we were put on hold to listen to people talk to us. The presiding bishop said hello, the director for mission spoke, and a few others. And I couldn’t help but feel like it was a salespitch for seminary. The words out of the various speakers seemed to imply that mission is open for young people, that positions of authority are there, that you won’t need an M.Div degree to even lead a church (that didn’t thrill me)! But is was what it always is: hollow. I just don’t by the arguments being made because it is reactionary rather than intentional. And it is still coached in a language for cradle Lutherans or people who already in the system. This works, kind of, in the setting of s Churchwide assembly, but it always sets off red flags for me. It is a language that assumes that young people are, somehow, the problem. We are asked to take charge as if the old guard is just serving because no one will step in. Really. Like really. It is patronizing, silly, and ignores the reality that there is a generation in power and they like being there. Young people are not the problem here.
This is a little ranty but there is just so much wrongness associated with how the leadership views the young. There is a prism rooted squarely in speaking the language of insiders. There is a lack of intentional self-reflection and serious question asking. Instead, there is an anxiety that bleeds into the church’s approach towards young adults. And I think it is an anxiety that infects everything the church is doing right now. We run from fire to fire without asking why the fire keeps happening in the first place. And if there is anything that young adults can feel and be turned off by, it is this kind of inauthentic approach towards identity formation. If this had existed in my home church when I first walked in, I wouldn’t have come back. If it could be felt when I walked in, I wouldn’t have stayed. Conflict and anxiety was there, issues existed, but it wasn’t limiting. It wasn’t scary. It was not defining the church. We need to live through and be comfortable with the anxiety. It cannot dictate what we are doing. We are a people who believe in God, in God’s living on earth, in the Cross and the promise that is Jesus Christ. We say that he will return. We are a people of promised hope! That is our strength and it is not an anxious one; it is a freeing one. So lets be serious and act like it is.
This is something that young adults might not be able to articulate, but we get. We get the anxiety, we understand who is in power, we also know we’re not a problem and if this is how young adults are viewed, then even though I have aged out, I will always be a young adult. I am the outsider. And as I write this, young adults get this. They noticed that the budget of 90 million only included 400k for youth and young adults. There is social media chat advocating for new motions and other such things to emphasize youth. But this isn’t an asking-it is a telling but I don’t know if the leadership will understand the difference.