There’s a saying I really like: “We are the product of the environment from which we came.” I like the saying because I think it is a true statement. I believe we are the people we are because of our families, school systems, parents, and career/college degree choices. From our birth until death, we are shaped by systems, structures, institutions, and ideologies — whether we are conscious of these forces or not.
I also think this belief holds true for the churches we grow up in. In many ways, we are the product of our spiritual formation experiences. While I don’t like to use the word ‘product’ in regards to churches — as I think we often edge dangerously close, in a consumer culture, to believing that churches are institutions designed to crank-out robust believers — I do believe that the church plays an integral role in shaping the very people we are via the discipleship models, pastoral care, and spiritual formation experiences provided to us.
I lay these claims because, as a 24-year-old seminarian, I am the very person I am today because of the discipleship given to me at my home church, Shawnee Park CRC. Throughout my childhood, young adult years, and early adult life, I was personally shaped by the community’s deep and persistent commitment to my discipleship. Here’s how it went: in 2009, Shawnee Park’s council signed a document that committed the church to a long-term plan of encouraging and empowering young people (approx. 15-30 years olds) in the congregation to take on leadership roles throughout the congregation. The hope behind this commitment was, foremost, to listen better to the voices of the younger generation as they joined committees and council and different service teams. The second aim was to revitalize a dwindling ministry to children and young adults. At the time, Shawnee noticed that they had a shrinking children’s ministry, a struggling youth group, and a non-existent college ministry in a city that had five colleges — three of which were distinctly ‘Christian’ colleges.
So, in 2009, they began to live out this commitment. They asked high school students to serve on rotating worship teams and on the weekly worship planning committee. They made a commitment that of the nine chairs of council (both elder and deacon), three would be filled by individuals under the age of thirty-five. They encouraged, empowered, and supported young people who had ideas for improving worship, the building, or even just the youth ministry. They began to listen better and talk less, instead of telling people what they needed, and they adjusted to hearing the desires of others. I believe that this deliberate move was an essential and formative part of my development into ministry today. As a young high schooler I was asked to play guitar in front of church, and then eventually to lead different elements of the liturgy, and finally, when I was a sophomore college student in 2013, to serve as the Elder of Worship on council. I was nineteen at the time, a young, relatively naive, untrained, and fear-filled young man.
As I recall this progression of involvement I am still incredibly blown away. I was a young college student who was told loudly and clearly by the church community that my voice mattered. They told me, “We trust you to take care of this. If you mess up, we will still be here to love and encourage you.” Now, six years later, I have just finished my third year at Seminary. I know that the person I am today — both in my personal and professional life — is a direct result of Shawnee’s discipleship, empowerment, and formation in my life. As I look ahead to future ministry in the church, I wonder what it would look like if more of our churches made commitments like this? I wonder what it would look like if we started to notice, name, and call out spiritual gifts in young people in their early teens? What if we trusted students enough to say, “You might mess this up, and it might affect our worship, or fellowship time, or council meeting, but we are willing to sacrifice those things because we want to see you learn and grow and we want to hear your voice.” This strikes me as an essential and important way to shape our congregations.
I wonder, are the people sitting in our pews each Sunday shaped more by the influences and voices of culture, telling them to be brave, to chase their dreams, and work harder — or, are they being shaped and formed by our churches discipleship and formational models? Sadly, I think the former is probably true more often than not. In many cases, I think we have failed to recognize the power that we have to form the Christian identity of the young people sitting in our pews. I think it’s time we begin to recognize this. To see it, to name it, and to call it out. Won’t you consider giving young people a voice at the table?