Reading an issue of the Presbyterian Record such as this one leaves me with such mixed emotions: joyous amazement at the vitality and accomplishments of youth in their church and community, and frustrated bewilderment that despite their proven abilities, some of them find their voices are limited or shut out altogether in the church's decision-making bodies. As one writer (p. 20) puts it:
Young adults often feel dismissed — whether that be the intention or not — at least for a few years, until we have aged sufficiently to be taken seriously, or until we have children in the Sunday school and have a “right” to speak to church issues. We find ourselves feeling frustrated, voiceless and oftentimes ignored.
That is not only sad, it is unconscionably bad stewardship. Worse, haven't those of us now in leadership positions been there ourselves? Don't we remember being idealistic, creative, energetic teens who wanted to be older in order to have the associated responsibility and power to make life- and world-changing decisions? And now that we are older, have we forgotten this at the same time that we pine for youthful beauty and recklessness and have mid-life crises?
Editorial license covers the dangers of over-reaching generalities, but the essence of the great divide between youth and adulthood remains, as several of the stories in this issue reveal. Yet young people in the church continue to prove that responsibility is not the preserve of 30-and-overs.
Sure, there is a carefree tendency towards life and simplicity about ideology when one is young. But one might counter that diminished creativity and risk-taking among adults is not always for the better. And in neither case must it be so.
And what is the difference between the idealism of youth and the hide-bound entrenched views of adults except who has the money to foist their opinions on others? The truth is that both the church and the wider community need the wisdom and vitality of young and old alike.
Denominational numbers for most mainline churches in the United States and Canada are falling. Even among churches with strong youth programs, Barna Group research in the U.S. published just a year ago found that most teenagers leave the church in their twenties and stay away — even when they have their own children.
What this means is that churches that fail to integrate the interest and viewpoints of youth are losing the opportunity to hear from those people — possibly forever. And if they aren't coming back … well, the writing is on the wall — and the wall is crumbling.
The thing is, there are so many opportunities for congregations to incorporate youth into their corporate life and there are so many capable teenagers out there, as our stories reveal.
At the local church level, leadership training can begin by inviting youth on to various committees to participate fully in the discussions and activities. As they gain confidence, perhaps they can move to a position on the board of managers.
After that, there is session, for which one has to be an elder. But despite the moniker, elders do not have to be old. In fact, there are no age restrictions on becoming an elder. What is most needed is a welcoming session and congregation.
Presbyteries and synods too can do their part in youth participation and leadership formation by asking youth to be part of any number of advisory and decisionmaking bodies.
Instead of providing programs for youth, perhaps congregations should focus on programs with youth. Maybe a few more would stick around in the years to come.