“Youth need to experience God for themselves. . . . We need to offer Jesus to our youth,” said Michele Hershberger, a Bible and ministry professor and department chair from Hesston (Kan.) College with experience in youth ministry and postmodern culture, at a recent Mennonite Church Eastern Canada youth workers event. “They need to be alongside adults who are authentically living out their faith,” and who are willing to talk about faith without giving easy answers, she said.
The retreat, held at Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp in New Hamburg, Ont., included pastors with responsibility for youth, youth workers and sponsors, alongside Jean Lehn Epp, the regional church’s interim coordinator of youth ministry resources, now in her second year of intentional discernment around the future of youth ministry.
At last year’s regional church gathering Lehn Epp said that “programs are not enough,” and shared a “provocative proposition” for youth ministry: “investing in intentional, unconditional relationships with youth, walking with them towards a fearless faith in Christ Jesus.”
The recent retreat was part of exploring what living into this proposition means.
Hershberger emphasized that youth are drawn to authentic people and authentic relationships, and that Anabaptist/Mennonite distinctives, like community, should mean that youth are integrated into all aspects of work, play and worship. Youth, like all people, are looking for a place to belong, where they can have a voice and a place that reflects their concerns.
She challenged youth leaders to let go of the theology of youth being “lost” to the church. While youth are “living in a culture of disorientation,” and find it difficult to have hope, they are longing for authentic relationships with others who are also authentic. “We are being called as churches to stop ‘playing’ church.” The challenge, she said, is to work at being authentic faith communities that are called to love, hear people’s stories and send the message to youth, “I hear you, I see you.”
She acknowledged that there is a need to name and grieve the loss of traditions, but there is some urgency to make “deep adaptive change,” and to work with youth to do it, sharing the power involved in shaping new faith communities. The church brings with it into the future all the gifts of its Anabaptist faith, like service, justice, peace, community, discerning Scripture together and embracing diversity.
The youth leaders present shared and encouraged one another by discussing where God has surprised them in youth ministry, what challenges they face and how they find support for their work.
At the end of the weekend, they participated in a playful “cape” blessing, which Lehn Epp described as “reminding us of the sacred work that we do, as if we are super heroes. Yet we fully rely on God’s power and not on our own. When we feel overwhelmed or feel that we have fallen short, we are reminded that we are enough and covered with the love of God.”
From a Mennonite Church Eastern Canada news release.
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