I spent three days at a Presbyterian church in Michigan, trying to help the community think about its youth ministry program. I had dinner with the youth from the church, spent a morning with youth leaders, talked for an afternoon with church staff, led an evening discussion with parents, and then led a Sunday afternoon workshop with church members. One of the dilemmas parents asked me to address was the resistance that youth had toward Sunday worship. Parents and staff members were discouraged by low church attendance from youth and they wanted me to help the church understand how they could understand and address the young people’s attitudes and involvement in worship.
So on Friday night, after pizza and cookies, I sat in a youth room with about twenty teenagers and asked them to tell me about their church, the larger community, and their experience in worship. The students felt the church was filled with generous and kind people. They understood the purpose and mission of the church and believed it was an important force for good in the community. When I asked them to talk more specifically about worship, they listed complaints that I often hear from young people in mainline, protestant, adult-oriented, worship services.
Then I asked, “How do you think your parents feel about worship?” Immediately they responded, “They feel exactly like we do, but they’re afraid to say anything.” I paused and then said, “Do you think the reason your parents flew me out here to help the staff make the church more ‘youth-friendly’ is really about your parents own frustrations?” One young man spoke up. “Yes. The adults are afraid. They can live with the way things are, but we [kids] complain and they know we’re right and we give them the motivation to try and change things.”
My favorite gathering was with a group of teens who meet at a coffee shop for Bible study early Sunday mornings. During this gathering I was talking to John, a fifteen year old who was recently elected to the church session (the leadership council of the church). Allowing youth on the session was a radical step for this church, considering that up until ten years ago youth and children were barred from worship. I asked John if it was difficult serving on the board. He told me, “Actually, I think I’m helpful.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well, many of the meetings are about money and budgets and policies. I don’t understand most of what is being talked about, so I ask a lot of questions. When the meetings end there are always three or four guys who pull me aside and confess they didn’t understand what was being discussed and were glad I asked questions.”
“Why don’t the other session members ask questions?” I responded.
“They’re afraid. They don’t want to look stupid. I’m a kid, so no one thinks bad of me for asking questions. It’s funny, because the session leader will say something and I know that no one knows what he’s talking about, but everyone will just stay quiet or they’ll all look at me and hope that I’ll say something. Eventually, I’ll just raise my hand and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you explain that better?’ It’s like this game we play, where I’m the only one allowed to admit that I don’t know things.”