This isn’t a new conclusion, but I am more and more convinced that the problems Unitarian Universalism is having with Youth and Young Adult ministry stem directly from a bankruptcy of spiritual and religious development — both in general in our movement and particularly with our kids. Here’s a list of items specifically from this General Assembly that are reconfirming this notion to me:
Rev. Christine Robinson, in her remarkable Berry Street address on Wednesday, remarked that we teach our kids everything one could ever know about sex, but we play “don’t ask, don’t tell” with matters of the spirit.
Rev. Bill Sinkford, in his President’s Report, specifically noted that it many cases across our Association, support for Youth and Young Adults is “woefully inadequate,” and called for a reimagining of Youth Ministry deeply rooted in spiritual development.
At a workshop on assumptions surrounding our treatment of Young Adults, the central argument of which was that we should treat all people in our churches of all ages as individuals, rather than focusing on identity-based affinities, it was not until the very end that the idea of spiritual development and need was really addressed. Barb Greves, a Young Adult leader, spoke very eloquently on the lack of connection of Youth and Young Adults to the adult life of our congregations, calling out the need to teach our kids how to be active and responsible adult members of the church in addition to giving them their own targeted programs. Another point that was made, not specifically related to spiritual development but well taken, is that the presence of a Young Adult “group” does not indicate the presence of a healthy Young Adult community. It is only when you see Young Adults working in areas of their own interest in every aspect of the church that you have true multigenerational community.
Breakthrough Congregation videos presented in Plenary specifically mention integrating children into the whole life of the congregation as being keys to their success — one stated, “We have developed a culture of treating children as human beings.” Another spoke of involving Youth intentionally in all areas of the church’s life, and third stated plainly, “It’s not about babysitting on Sunday mornings.” These kinds of practices and attitudes, I feel, are key if we want to retain our Youth and Young Adults. We need to give them their own roles in the community, specific to them as individuals.
I heard second hand about the Bridging “worship” service last night from someone who walked out in disgust. One speaker spent his time trashing every adult advisor he had ever worked with. The music groups involved had nothing to do with Unitarian Universalism, and stated so from the microphones. Other presenters spent their time talking about domestic abuse and brawls in gay bars. There was no worship. There were no connections to the idea of “Bridging” from youth to adulthood. (Again, this is second hand, but I’ll vouch for the source.)
The report of the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth had some prime examples of how we are failing our kids in spiritual development, too. The working group that has come out of the process has great goals: a truly comprehensive youth ministry that is congregationally based, multigenerational, spirit-centered, and radically inclusive. And yet they quoted several youth talking about their “spirituality,” saying things like, “I believe in peace and love” as the whole of their theological reflection — that’s great, if you’re five, but when you’re fifteen?!
This is not the religious centering that we owe our kids. We’re not teaching our Youth and Young Adults how to articulate, or to act on their innate religious impulses. We’re letting them flounder all on their own, and this has to stop.
I’ve witnessed a certain style of communication among our Youth and Young Adult leaders, a positive way of seeking to honor one another’s situation and not acting solely on assumptions, encouraging a culture where we go deeper, faster, as the Rev. Forrest Church calls us to do, to ask questions when we’re not sure of something — something that I’ve noticed adults are generally not that good at. This needs to be cultivated, and broadened with a deeper religious vocabulary than we currently offer our young people, so that they can speak authentically to their religious impulses as well as their social values.
Somehow, we are succeeding at giving our young people the tools to built authentic relationships with other people, but we’re not giving them the tools to develop a relationship with the sacred, with that which is beyond themselves.
For example, when we teach comparative religions, are we offering our youth any sense of their own ownership of Unitarian Universalist history, specifically Unitarian and Universalist religious concepts? Why are we asking our people, of all ages, to reinvent the spiritual wheel for themselves? “Spirituality,” without historical, theological, and real-life grounding is nebulous, and usually empty. We have so much to learn from that which came before, all of us.
I’m also thinking more about the labels we place on our programs, and what messages they send our kids. What does the phrase, “Religious Exploration” versus “Religious Education” say to our kids? Is it furthering the idea of the theology of “wandering in the wilderness?”
These are interesting conversations that we need to start having on deeper and deeper levels, across our Association.