Every November, the ELCA invites each synod of the ELCA to send two young leaders from their synod and an adult to the ELCA Youth Leadership Summit, a gathering of teenagers who demonstrate a passion and skill for leadership in the church from across the country. This year, four wonderful people travelled from SEPA Synod, Jordan Brechbill (Christ, Kulpsville, 10th Grade), Filomena Alves (Holy Communion, Philadelphia, 12th Grade), Raine Bedeaux (Trinity, Perkasie, 11th Grade),and Karolin Brechbill (Christ, Kulpsville, Adult). Check out their amazing reflections on the weekend and the future of the church!
The Incredible Wisdom of Youth
We had an amazing weekend filled with uplifting worship, intense conversations and amazing keynote speakers. We met 70+ youth from all over the country, including fantastic kids from Nebraska, Minnesota, California, Ohio, South Carolina, even Alaska. 48 of our 65 Synods were represented and it was absolutely incredible to see them start off as strangers (we literally only knew ourselves and maybe two other people) and end as hugging, crying, I-don’t-want-to-leave-you friends. I wanted to share just a little of what I learned as I participated and watched these amazing young people, and I hope that these reflections afford you a little bit of the spiritual lift it gave me.
The youth of the ELCA are active, vibrant, and HOPEFUL for the future…their church is important to them and they are concerned about staying vital and relevant in the future. They know the church numbers are declining, but that doesn’t diminish their passion, and they even have ideas of how to fix it.
Prayer is POWERFUL. We know this, but did you know that the teenagers know it too? We had multiple opportunities to pray with and for each other…to practice talking to God about our concerns, asking God for forgiveness and praying for God’s intercession for someone else. By Sunday morning worship, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we laid hands on each other, lit candles for the saints, and wrote down prayers that were just too hard to speak aloud.
Difficult conversations are vital to the growth and future of our church. Around tables of 8-10 people we discussed the issues of race relations, immigration, sexual identity, poverty, systemic classism…these youth are intelligent, open, brutally honest and SO accepting. It was such a blessing to see that people could differ in their opinions and still respect one another. There was never any name calling. There was no bullying. Tensions ran high sometimes, as they will when you have such a varied mix of ethnicities, socio-economic statuses and regional upbringing, but they made it work. When we started our conversations on race, a young man from North Dakota said he didn’t understand why we were still talking about race when the civil rights era was 50+ years ago. After hours of sharing stories and conversations, he shared again with the group, and with tears in his eyes said he understood now.
These kids LIKE to sing. You may think, really? They never sing in church… but truly, sing they did. One of the reasons I believe it worked so well is that they had a play-list of 10 songs that they used over and over so that by the end of the time together, the band would start one and the youth would scream and clap as if it was their favorite song playing on the radio. All lyrics were put on the screen as well, which encouraged them to “look up” rather than in a book. They were also allowed and encouraged to move. I’ve seen this at National Youth Gatherings as well. The kids will sing more if they are allowed to jump around, make conga lines, clap their hands or sling their arms over each other’s shoulders. There is something absolutely heartwarming to see these teenagers singing Here I Am, Lord, while holding each other up and swaying to the music. I have a short video on my phone that captures this, so if you would like to see it, please just ask the next time you see me!
Service and Advocacy is key to the future growth of our church-the ELCA does so many things on this front, and to hear keynote speakers talking about the places they have traveled and the laws they have helped to enact and the thousands of people they have helped to feed or bring potable water to was truly inspiring. These teenagers truly embrace the idea that our work in the world for others is a direct response to the grace which they have been given and they are ready to do it. If we don’t provide these opportunities, they will go somewhere else to get them…it’s that important!
Relationships are vital to our church-I recently read an article that talked about how older generations (like mine and maybe yours) took relationships for granted, and focused on building structures (buildings, programs etc). But these newer generations take those structures for granted (the church has always been there) and want to focus on building relationships. I saw that this is most certainly true at this Youth Summit. Seeing each other, looking directly into someone’s eyes, sharing a part of their story, praying for and with each other, touching shoulders/holding hands/hugging one another…all these things are SO important to our church staying vibrant and relevant. We, as ELCA Lutherans, stand in such a great place because our message of Grace, forgiveness, acceptance, support and building relationships really resonates with the younger generations. They NEED that message, especially in today’s world. I need that message. YOU need that message too.
There are a whole bunch of awesome youth leaders and Pastors out there who are dedicated to connecting with youth and providing opportunities for them to find their place in this great big church family. I am grateful to them for welcoming me and I was honored to get to know them.
So, these were the big “take-aways” for me for this 2016 ELCA Youth Leadership Summit. I learned a lot of other stuff, including a few songs that I didn’t know before and a few games to play on future youth retreats. I pray that in the coming years we work together to increase/improve/build upon ways that we create relationships, have difficult conversations, study the Bible in cross generational groups, participate in interactive, meaningful worship services that connect us together, and grow in our faithful service to God.
– Karolin Brechbill