Young people—our national treasure

August 26, 2015 | Editorial | Volume 19 Issue 17

Chris Brnjas, a young pastor from Ontario and a delegate to the Global Youth Summit held prior to Mennonite World Conference assembly last month, came back with a reminder that we are changing from an old, well-worn paradigm that “young adults are the future of the church” to the new and more encompassing “young adults are the present and the future of the church.”

Oftentimes young adults are seen by their congregations as more “young” than “adult” and feel as if their contributions and gifts are not taken seriously, he said, touching on an assumption we elders make intellectually but often don’t practice. We are bound, too often, by the conventional thinking that we as elders, with our lifetime experience, have the most to teach younger members in the faith, if only they would take our advice.

We don’t say it out loud, but we think it.

Without being patronizing, let me suggest that many times the reverse may be true. The so-called “millenials” (age 18-34) have grown up in a quite different era than most of their elders. They have been exposed to a broader cultural experience than many of us who grew up in closed religious enclaves. Their acceptance of persons different from themselves comes easily and without some of the prejudices that our earlier culture ingrained in us.

They are better educated. For us, sons and daughters of parents with an eighth-grade education, going to college and university was a first-time experience for many of our families. It wasn’t that we were smarter than our parents, but we were given the tools for intellectual development, critical thinking and communication that was not afforded them.

With their intellectual and communication skills, millenials can interact on a level with their parents and elders in this new era. They are savvy market consumers and less likely to be loyal to institutions than their elders. They are far more sophisticated in their communication and keep abreast with the times through the social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, LinkedIn and YouTube.

That doesn’t mean they are less committed to our Anabaptist beliefs, however.  More impressed with action than words, they are more inclined toward shoe-leather Christianity than finely-tuned theological statements or pietistic pontification about personal salvation and discipleship. Theirs is a language of doing and being.

Hans Weaver, a millennial co-founder of Menno Tea, told our staff member, Michael Hostetler, in an interview at Mennonite World Conference, that in producing their product, they are primarily interested in sustainable agriculture, using only organic products and supporting local producers. They give a portion of their profits to Everence, the U.S. Mennonite Mutual Aid organization, and want to expand their production around the world with the same values and principles, demonstrating a far more passionate devotion to peace and justice.

Millenials are postponing marriage and children, often waiting until their late 20s and early 30s before making those commitments. Meanwhile, many of them are traveling the globe and going into volunteer assignments that expand their horizons and give them a broad viewpoint of how our world is rapidly changing.

In the present sexuality debate, they are much more accepting of those with a different sexual orientation and are often puzzled by the divisiveness that so preoccupies their elders.

With all of these qualities, it is important for us elders to not only recognize these gifts, but to invite greater participation of our young people in our congregational life, to make them an integral part of our worship and Christian formation efforts. It is inter-generational learning in reverse. We might have a healthier church if we took some clues from our young people.

In her farewell sentiments, our Young Voices co-editor Rachel Bergen said she found her voice in writing for Canadian Mennonite “and a greater passion for writing about the Mennonite Church.” She said she “felt the freedom to tackle such onerous issues as rape culture and inclusion of people of differing sexualities and gender identities in the church” and “no pressure to write cutesy cat stories like there is in mainstream media.”

Adequate proof that, when recognized, our young adults can be enthused about the church and make it all the more vibrant, when given the opportunity to use their gifts. A national treasure indeed.

See the feature written by Chris Brnjas and Jessica Reesor Rempel: “Pulling the curtain of hope over fear”

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While not wanting to minimize the current generation's commitment to walking with Jesus, I fear that the editor is doing an injustice to past generations. During the 1950's - at least in the Canadian prairies - there was an unusually high percentage of Mennonite young adults practicing "shoe-leather Christianity", attending Bible schools/colleges, teaching Sunday School and leading worship. We, like our parents, were struggling with cultural transitions and were less sophisticated than modern youth, but that did not minimize the quality and faithfulness of our Christian commitment. Never since, has there been such a high number of MCC volunteers and global missionaries. Our congregations were exporting huge numbers of young adults to other more evangelical denominations and para-church groups. I think we were much more intentional about searching for God's will and in struggling with secular influences. Peace and justice was very important. Even then, too often it was separated from personal piety and the assurance of God's saving grace. Traditions, then as now, were challenged. In my church experiences, church leadership authority – despite being minimally educated - was not abused nearly as much as this paper would have us think. Now, as throughought our Mennonite history, our enthusiasm, dedication and naivety results in many poor choices.
I am very grateful for my Mennonite heritage and its institutions. As someone with nearly 30 years of formal education, both secular and theological, I know that education and sophistication is not the key to Godliness. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path” Proverbs 3:5-6

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