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The work of welcoming young people

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving two workshops at the churchwide event for young people called the Episcopal Youth Event. Hundreds and hundreds of teenagers from across the church with chaperones and other adult leaders converged in one space for a few days of faith and fellowship and learning and worship oriented entirely around the lives of young people.

It was so fun to get to see my friends from all around the country, and to present on social media and evangelism and vocation and discernment for some big rooms full of excited people. I ran into a friend from back in California -- the head pastor of a big church -- who was reflecting to me that he wished an event like this had a little more encouragement to the adults in the room about what to do to help our churches be more welcoming of young people. A lot of churches feel in crisis about their decline or the lack of youth and young adults in their midst, and my friend wanted to hear what to do about it.

The most common tactic for youth and young adult ministries is to have age-separated events distinct from the rest of the church -- youth-only youth group, college-only tuesday dinners, young adult-only weekend retreats. It can be important to have group-bonding time, but sometimes it can feel like -- and it felt like this at this big churchwide event -- we create these utopian youth-only spaces because they don't feel welcomed or incorporated anywhere else.

Youth and college students and young adults have big, cool ideas for the future of our churches -- ways to gather, ways to worship, ways to learn -- and so often they are given very, very little creative control to try out their ideas in the context of our churches. On mission trips, at summer camp, at youth-events, teams of youth and young adults have complete control to plan and organize their own lives. Then they come home to their congregations, and they often lose those freedoms so that "real adults" can be in charge of things, especially in cases where their ideas are deemed too gawdy or too divisive or too poorly thought out to be worth putting in front of a whole church.

My encouragement and my reminder (to myself, too!) on the heels of a big churchwide event for young people is that our young people are ready for leadership right now -- not a decade from now, not five years from now, not when they finally graduate college or get a real job, they're ready right now. They have the ideas and excitement to lead and build our churches right now, and it is only by giving them the freedom and the encouragement to lead that we will be a Church truly welcoming of young people. Maybe some of their ideas will surprise you or catch you off guard or read as gawdy. Maybe their ideas won't land, or maybe they'll take off, maybe they'll just be different than what you would have done, but young people deserve the freedom to try and lead and fail (or soar!), and I expect that we might just be surprised and delighted about how it goes.

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