Hearing young voices

September 28, 2011 | Editorial | Number 19
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

As a person old enough to be their grandparent, I have to be careful with my words about young people. Having grandchildren of my own, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, to regard the boundaries which respectfully guard the integrity, identity and idealism of the younger generation.

Which is not to say that we are alienated or distant. Quite the contrary. When there is mutual respect, good communication and confidence usually follow. The wisdom of good grandparenting lies with developing a balance of letting go—of high expectations—while holding on to unconditional affection. Or as someone has aptly put it: giving them “roots and wings.”

This same dynamic should occur in our congregational development, but perhaps with a little different twist. It should be an integral part of our spiritual formation, already heralded by the ancient Israelite prophet Joel and then echoed by the writer of Acts, that “I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Pardon the ancient gender bias here: It should read young men and women.)

A literal take on this almost sidelines us “old men.” The burden of developing spirituality in any body of believers, according to Joel, lies with our sons, daughters and young men. It is theirs to be the prophetic, visionary members of the body, while us older members “dream on.” Does this mean that older folks are irrelevant and not in touch with reality?

No, but it does mean that we should gradually let go of the levers of power in the congregation and intentionally position our sons and daughters, who have much more idealism and energy, to take over responsibility as we counsel them toward goals—dreams—that we haven’t brought to fruition despite our best efforts.

Is this what we see demographically in most congregations? Hardly. Many of our congregations are aging and unwilling to let go of their control that somehow, subconsciously, accrues with age. To turn things over to the younger members, inexperienced as they might be, seems difficult and unwise.

That will need to change if we are to grow our churches from the inside. If only we retained our children and grandchildren as active members, we would be much larger in numbers than we now are. It is not the numbers, though, that are important here. Rather, it is a principle of spiritual formation—turning over responsibility to the young—with a by-product of growth.

It is with this same vision that we are developing Canadian Mennonite. Beginning this past June, we added a section to our publication called Young Voices. We enlisted the journalistic skills and vision of Emily Loewen, a graduate student in journalism at Ryerson University, Toronto, Ont., as a summer intern to develop these pages as an invitation to begin a conversation with the younger generation. She has graciously agreed to stay on as our Young Voices editor while finishing her degree.

In her first editorial she articulated well her goals for these pages: “This is a space for ‘young’ Mennonites, however you define the term, to share your work and find ways to live more faithful lives. Young people have important ideas to share with our church. But sometimes, whether because of doubt in our own abilities or because people dismiss us as idealists, our ideas don’t lead to anything. Here, these thoughts can be shared, added to and carefully critiqued.”

We applaud these goals and support Emily in every way. Already she has formed a network of young writers and, through a presence on Facebook, has raised the visibility of, and interaction with, these Young Voices pages. Our hits online are increasing each week.

Sometimes what these “young voices” express will jar us. That’s okay. It’s their function to do this. Joel has already told us that when the spirit is active, our sons and daughters will prophesy and see what we older folks can’t see: visions.

And they have a different style. They are not as loyal to the church institutions; are not as biblically literate as their elders; and get their information from a wide variety of sources not necessarily aligned with our core beliefs. They are finding their way in a complex world. Let’s stand by them.

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