Let me introduce myself as a Christian, at least I think so. I am always perplexed when I hear people ask the question: when or why did you choose to become a Christian? I don't remember anyone ever laying out choices in front of me. My parents never asked if I would like to seek enlightenment through the Buddhist path. Nor did they ever consider if I would be more excited to go to temple on Saturday rather than to a Sunday Catholic mass. Only to fall asleep, doodle and color on the program, or when I got into my teenage years to sit there and ponder the blatant contradictions and startling hypocrisy.
Yet here I am today, 21 years old trying to read the Bible and pray daily, I have chosen internships at churches and non-for profits over other corporate opportunities, spent my summers at ministry camps, and spend almost 15 hours a week hanging out with high school kids. My heroes are people I am sure you have never heard of; N.T. Wright, William Stringfellow, the Niebuhr brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day and Shane Claiborne.
So how did this happen? I could tell you the sappy details of the years of my life that I spent searching for an identity, chasing after avenues to find meaning and purpose, and most of all longing to feel fully alive. But you have heard all those fluffy conversion stories before. The short story is that I did not make a "choice" to become a Christian but ran into the God of the Gospels when people in my life kept showing up and loving me like I had never been loved before.
But as a religious studies major and peace studies minor conversion is not what I am interested in exploring. What I am intrigued to understand on a scholarly and personal level is the connections so many, including myself, have made to intertwine faith and social engagement. Since this connection occurred, my life has been built around a few passions: youth, the academic study of religion, and a passion for combating injustice.
The following is a recommendation for the future of ministry based on my personal story, my experience working with youth in various faith-based communities, and scholarly research concerning youth agency for positive social change and capacity for genuine interaction with their faith.
I set out to understand the dichotomy between youth that are consistently marginalized and therefore never able to fully participate in shaping and changing their context, alongside the connection between youth's faith experience and how they engage socially and politically. Youth are the recipients of the context they live in and are not considered participants in creating and changing the social or political landscape they find themselves in.
In a faith setting, there is a general sense that children and youth are incapable of having a genuine, legitimate, or significant faith experience compared to adults. As well, youth are generally not considered to have the agency to be peace builders or forces for positive social change. Frankly, in religious settings youth are only thought to offer the community an example of “blind faith.” While in the political and social realm, youth are not active participants in creating and changing the structures and systems that often oppress and marginalize them.
Both of these unfounded notions dictate the methodology of how faith-based communities, faith-based non-for profits, ministries, or churches engage youth. These communities that work with youth in the hopes of transforming youth’s lives according to Christian principles have no problem initially attracting youth. What they are failing at is successfully creating a sustainable relationship with a faith community and personal transformation that lasts past the initial emotional response.
This is because youth are longing and yearning for something more than the narrow and personalized Christianity they are recipients of. In her article Subversive Spirituality in Youth Ministry at the Margins, Susanna Johnson says, “...the theological framework of faith based organizing is a socially engaged spirituality shaped by a biblical foundation, and eschatological orientation, and a political responsibility.” By “eschatological orientation” she is suggesting that youth are longing for their faith not to be a spirituality solely emotional and personal, but rather she suggests youth’s faith becomes significant, long lasting, and socially and politically focused when they find themselves in a community that is horizontally interpreting the Bible and living out future hopes and promises for a just and peaceful world in the present.
Susanna Johnson, other scholars of youth ministry, and myself agree that contrary to popular understanding, youth have the capacity to interact with their faith in a meaningful and creative way. They also are able to draw on it as a tool to understand injustice in the world and for their faith to become a source of motivation for actively creating a more just and peaceful society.
This is my story. My Christian faith had always been a very personalized and narrow experience that was more focused on trying to become a better person than anything else. As I began to ponder the social and political implications of what I was reading in the gospels, I was able to see that my faith had so much more to do with combating political injustice, asking questions about where my food and clothes come from, rejecting violence justified by national narratives, and working to equalize the drastic inequalities in the world than simply being a good person.
Through various media outlets, the internet, all forms of social media youth are constantly being made aware of the stark inequalities, injustices, and the suffering in today’s world. Hence, why more than ever youth possess an urgency and yearning to transform the world into a more just society. The raping and destroying of the Earth has been brought to light because of the climate change controversy and has been discussed over many dinner tables and even implemented into the education of youth kindergarten through college. This serves as an example of how injustice, suffering, violence, and environmental issues are in the forefront of the minds of youth.
I have often suggested that youth are prophets because they are marginalized like most prophets are and maybe more than anyone else are capable of witnessing, interpreting, and drawing conclusions about suffering, violence, and injustice. Their voices for change cry out but are often stifled by social institutions and religious hierarchy that perpetuate the status quo.
The future of youth ministry depends on faith-based community’s ability to intertwine the two realities I have identified. Youth not only have agency to be positive forces for social change but are yearning to feel alive by doing so and they long to interact with their faith in a meaningful way free of hierarchy that expects them to only accept dogma. If youth ministry is able to create platforms and communities that allow youth to connect their faith with the responsibility to engage socially and politically to create more just and peaceful societies, youth ministry will be successful in transforming the individual and the community as a whole to look more like the life and community laid out by Jesus in the Gospels.