Wasted youth

We interviewed Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family, on God Complex Radio yesterday (as usual, you can click on the right to hear the interview). It was pretty fascinating. He was a part of Ivanwald, a home for men, who are the chosen ones. They were men from affluent households, who were being groomed, through hard work, close mentorships, and prayer meetings for leadership. Ivanwald also has a connection to C Street, a home for congressmen who are connected to the Family and have been highlighted in a number of scandals lately. The Family is a secretive, and extremely powerful fundamentalist group.

It was actually a pretty emotional experience for me, reading the book. I don’t want to over-play my relationship to the Religious Right—I left it before I turned twenty-one. But it answered a lot of questions for me.

It also reminded me of many of the differences between my Conservative roots and my Progressive present. Most of the shifts are wonderful, and I embrace them, but reading this haunting history reminded me that there are some things that we can… well… I’m groping for words here… learn from Conservatives? Things that I’m thankful for?

One of the most shocking realizations as I read this book is the lack of mentoring that happens in Progressive circles. I always hear people who lived through the 60s, decrying the fact that there are no good young leaders. We have a leadership vacuum. There is no respected, loud and clear voice, speaking out for progressive values.

It always confused me, because I’m surrounded by smart, young progressive leaders. To me, it seemed like they were speaking clearly, but no one was listening.

Yet, as I work more and more within our progressive faith tradition, I realize that there is almost an undercurrent of hostility toward the young. I feel it often. Working with generational issues, all across the country, I am always hitting on some raw wound. It often comes up when I point out sociological research that says that Generation X is the most innovative generation in our country’s history. We have more entrepreneurs, we’ve started more companies, fueled the tech boom, etc.

People often get furious.

And let me be clear. I brought up Gen X because their span still includes people in their 20s. But I’m not talking about people like me. I’m not so young any more. I’m talking about those who are younger than me. For instance, I have also been startled by attitudes toward Campus Ministry.

I have been working with college students, in one way or another, ever since I became a pastor, because it’s important. I know that we are overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Campus Crusade for Christ (which always makes me wonder… what college student wants to be a part of a “crusade”? What organization would embrace that name? The crusades were a dark and terrible blot for Christians…), Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Even on George Washington University’s campus, where most of the students are politically progressive, why would CCC’s ministry be so robust?

Well, I’m not sure how many full-time staff that CCC has on George Washington University campus, but I know it’s at least two. At least 80 hours a week dedicated to developing young Christian leaders. In comparison, I work ten hours a week, and I am in a constant struggle for funding to hold on to the ten hours.

Most of our Campus Ministers, in Mainline Denominations across the country, spend most of their time trying to justify their jobs, and trying to fundraise in the midst of denominations who question our existence. Denominational funding has been slashed, governing bodies don’t understand the point, the local church feels to strapped to reach out. There is always something more pressing than Campus Ministry.

There would never be a question in a conservative church. Never. If the ministry was struggling, they would fire the person and put someone effective in. Why? Because they are just much more focused on young leadership. They don’t wait for young leaders to kick down the doors, they open the doors for young leaders. And if there is no door to open, they build a door for them.

It seems that we have lost our vision in Mainline Christianity for mentoring, challenging, developing, and loving young leadership. There are exceptions (thank God) to this overarching theme. Will Willimon spoke about his frustrations on this issue quite clearly. But, it still remains as the most startling difference between the two cultures.


16 thoughts on “Wasted youth

  1. Carol,

    Thanks for the thoughts. Just this morning I was reflecting on the last two Sunday’s Gospel texts (in the Revised Common Lectionary) and Jesus’ insistence about welcoming the children, those who are excluded and seen as non-people. I then began to think about who that is in the church today and kept coming up with Young Adults (myself included). I’m a pastor in my 20s and yet much of my ministry is with people significantly older than I am. But by and large the church welcomes children well as well as families and older folk. But people in their 20s and 30s often find they aren’t seen as people with real ability to contribute meaningfully.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, it’s furthering along my thinking…

  2. Your great post reminds me of Willimon’s comment on your show that “we (the mainline)are maintaining an institution that is shaped for a people God is killing off.”

    I think you are right on target. Build a door.

  3. This is an issue that is close to my heart being the parent of two twentysomethings and seeing them struggle to stay connected to the Presbyterian church which doesn’t seem to have a place for them. Most of their friends have moved to more conservative churchs (Mars Hill is particulary dominant in our area) but what about those who resist that theology? I agree with Kate, we have gone so far on welcoming young children,even on building our high school youth program but once you are off to college – it feels like “see ya later”.

  4. Carol,
    Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity campus ministry leaders raise personal support among friends, while progressives expect their funding to come from institutions. Why not follow their example in this respect?

  5. You hit the nail on the head. Boomers seem often to look down on younger people who did not share in the magic of the 60’s. They don’t realize this is the same boring self-righteousness that happens in many generations.

  6. Henry,

    That’s a very good question. And you also point out a very crucial difference in our cultures.

    Progressives ordinarily do not give directly to ministers. They give to the church (institution, or denomination), while para-church ministries encourage a more direct approach.

    While I was growing up, it was a regular occurrence that we would give money or gifts to our pastors directly. When I went to Bible school, people sent me money to make it through. When I studied to be a missionary, we were taught how to make personal pleas.

    In contrast, in the mainline church, substantial gifts given directly to friends/family can be considered unethical.

    (I was reminded of this recently, when I wondered how a colleague of mine survived as a writer. Someone informed me that he received personal donations. It shocked me. I can’t imagine how people would respond if I quit the pastorate and asked for personal donations to support my writing! But I know that it’s common in the evangelical church.)

    I think the biggest direct gift that I have received was a dehumidifier when our first floor was under water. Still… I felt pretty guilty about it.

    That said, in Campus Ministry, many, many pastors do fundraise from friends and family. That was what I was referring to when I wrote “trying to fundraise in the midst of denominations who question our existence.” They are VERY creative in their ministry funding. Doing bi-vocational ministry, opening coffeehouses, bookstores, renting apartments, etc. I have not had to do personal fundraising yet, but we might need to start doing it soon. We are also on the giving end–we often send people money when we know that they’re struggling.

    Our missionaries used to be paid through the denomination as well. But I think this has changed. Does anyone know?

  7. Carol– This post is wonderfully insightful about people involved with youth and young adults in ministry and the lack of recognition by main church bodies. I know you are on the right track in the work that you’re doing. Keep it up!

  8. which always makes me wonder… what college student wants to be a part of a “crusade”? What organization would embrace that name? The crusades were a dark and terrible blot for Christians…

    Honestly, I think that there is a real sense, especially in conservative circles, that “crusade” has come to mean “any movement or cause pursued for the sake of Christ and Christ’s church,” in a sense wholly divorced from the Crusades of the 11th – 13th centuries. At least, most such people never give those actual Crusades a second thought when they use that language.

    I’m actually all for re-recognizing the word’s origins, and trying to move away from the use of such language for modern Christian evangelism. But I think it needs to be recognized that a lot of folks who use that language aren’t thinking about those origins.

    (Obviously, I’m not even talking about the sub-group of people who use such language who still see nothing wrong with what Christians did in the Crusades of earlier centuries. I’m talking about folks who might actually agree that Christians behaved badly then, but haven’t thought things through when they use that word more generally.)

  9. Yes. I think now, with the growing idea that America is anti-Muslim, it’s good to rethink these terms.

    It really hit me when I was in RI. The church down the street started a “Children’s Crusade” which, of course, echoed such horrors…

  10. Carol,

    Our missionaries are still funded centrally, primarily. However, increasingly they are being asked to participate in raising funds for the mission effort. And, truth be told, their appointment is often conditional – based upon their agreement to participate in this process. However we do stills see it as an important function of the church. The old faith based vs. salaried missionary discussion is still quite strong…

  11. “They don’t wait for young leaders to kick down the doors.”

    Its worth adding that it takes a long time to kick down doors, and by the time all the doors are kicked down, we aren’t so young anymore!

  12. I know I’ve already put much of this on Facebook, but I’ll share it with the readers hear as well.

    As far as Christian formation goes, I would argue that campus ministry *should* be one of the BIGGEST priorities of mainline churches.

    Campus ministries are missions which reach out to those who have been hurt by the faith of their youth or have become disenchanted by religion. For others, campus ministries provide the first introduction to Christianity. Campus ministries provide space and tools for students to wrestle with faith in community — to explore what it means to be Christian when not living with parents. It’s a time when faith develops, deepens, and grows.

    Campus ministries help connect students to jobs as summer camp counselors. Campus ministries fuel and train the future lay leaders of the Church — the type of people who take jobs as young professionals and seek out congregations where they can make an impact helping with various ministries and serving on congregational councils. Campus ministries provide global missionaries, service volunteers, and much much more! Campus ministries are pipelines that feed students directly to seminaries to pursue full-time careers in the Church.

    How much more “mission critical” can you get???

    I admit to being biased. It is *only* because of campus ministry that I am the person I am today — that I even know my wonderful wife — and that I care so much about my faith today. It is only because of my time as a student involved with campus ministry that I now serve as the Lutheran campus minister at George Mason University and dream of serving the Church for *many* years to come. Part of my personal campus ministry story is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKCLAdNhvQA

    I am *NOT* an anomaly.

    I believe that if we lack the next generation of church leaders and members, it will be
    because we’ve abandoned the students on our college campuses…
    because we’ve treated campus ministry as a program that is nice to have sometimes rather than a vital mission of the Church…
    because we haven’t built the doors…
    because we don’t listen when the pound around seeking or expressing their longings…and
    because our actions imply that we really don’t care…

  13. I work with a campus ministries network in our presbytery and it faces the very same issues you do Carol. It is heartbreaking for me to see one of our very best pastors, who serves 20 hours on a local campus (and only 20 because that is all the money there is to pay her) trying to serve her students and survive. She is worried now that there will not be money for her salary after Jan.

    On the campus I taught on for 20 years sometimes Campus Crusade for Christ was thought of almost as a cult which used cult-like strategies of separating students from friends and families who did not agree with CCC’s take on religion. I am not sure if this was an accurate depiction of what the CCC actually did, but I worried about students under their direction not really taking advantage of learning to think critically about all kinds of subjects and topics they were learning about in their classes.

    You are correct. There are many fine young students out there with wonderful leadership capabilities. We just have to welcome then and mentor them and accept them as they are and let them grow into their own leadership potential and not try to remake them into our vision of a “leader.”

  14. ” I know that we are overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Campus Crusade for Christ (which always makes me wonder… what college student wants to be a part of a “crusade”? What organization would embrace that name? The crusades were a dark and terrible blot for Christians…)”

    I live in very conservative Central Texas. A Southern Baptist college here put together a football team about 10 years ago. In a time when many college teams were rejecting insensitive masots, the school chose the Crusaders as their team name. I think most people are oblivious to its connotations.

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