July 8, 2019

Leadership

Youth Sunday Lessons about the Meaning of Community

By: Peter Lipsett

Church-goers often have strong feelings about the concept of Youth Sunday. Those in the congregation feel a sense of either excitement or trepidation when they arrive at church to discover the youth of the church will lead the service.

We recently held our Youth Sunday.

Put me solidly in the “trepidation” camp. As a Presbyterian (see also “Frozen Chosen”), I like the routine of the standard service, perhaps with a little flair thrown in here and there. I see Youth Sunday a bit like Forrest Gump see’s mystery in a box of chocolates.

While the kids certainly faced the standard miscues – asking us to sit when we should stand, speaking too quietly and other grave sins – the service ran better than I expected. It also offered a surprising lesson in the value of community.

The youth led two major changes to the service. To open worship, everyone was asked to write out a fear or concern on a special sheet of paper. We then, row by row, took these slips to a bowl of water in the front. The flimsy paper dissolved in the water, symbolically cleansing us of these pains. It felt a little weird, maybe hokie… but also satisfying.

The other quirk came with the sermon, and here is where the most frozen of our chosen became particularly uncomfortable. The youth read the parable of the Good Samaritan three times. Between each reading, members of the congregation were asked to – gasp – talk with each other about various questions.

I reluctantly did as I was asked. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the brief conversations. Given the chatter in the room, it seemed I was not the only one. For a moment, we were not a flock being led but a gaggle being energized, exploring ideas together in a new way.

Whether for secular or religious communities, whether big or small, this Youth Sunday demonstrates three vital truths for each of us to remember as we engage in our communities.

1. Our Community is Everyone

The funny thing about the concept of community is that it isn’t fixed in size and scope. If you’re reading this piece, you’re part of a community of people who care about philanthropy and engagement. While we may be alike in that sense, I’m obviously part of the community of Presbyterians and you might not be (given the declines in my denomination, you probably aren’t!).

During Youth Sunday, we also see the flexibility of hierarchies in a strong community, and how every member brings fresh ideas and different perspectives.

The selection of the Good Samaritan story is no coincidence either. If you need a refresher on the story, you can find it in Luke 10:25-37. As you consider the concentric circles of your communities, what sort of person ends up on the outside of all of them? That person, for you, is the modern Samaritan.

These youth from a Generation Y cohort tired of the divisiveness spoiling so much of our political, social, and communal conversations understand that liking someone and respecting them can in fact be mutually exclusive. Sometimes our community is bigger than we realize.

2. Importance of Invitation

The cynical reader might dismiss the kids’ “sermon” as a cop out. They bypassed any deep soul-searching by simply reading and putting the burden on the congregation. I admit I had that reaction as well, at first.

But how do we learn best? Is it by being fed the information or by personally wrestling with the ideas? Doesn’t the best teaching help the students make their own discoveries?

We needed an invitation, not a lesson. Widening the scope of our community, or even engaging with the communities we know we’re part of, can take significant energy. We have to overcome fear, anxiety, and inertia. Often, we won’t do that on our own. We need to be invited.

This is one of the great lessons in philanthropy and fundraising. The number one reason people make a gift is because they were asked. Hoping for others’ self-discovery of the channels of engagement, be they charitable or otherwise, is more likely to lead to a lack of engagement.

Let’s be blunt – this is a trap many conservatives and libertarians fall into as we attempt to spread our ideas. We believe that the ideas of liberty and freedom and self-determination are self-evident, and because we believe that, we give people the freedom to discover that themselves (or not to, as the case may be). If we want to grow this community, or any we are a part of, we have to extend a hand and make people feel welcome.

Let me tell you – the majority of folks in that sanctuary on Sunday had no interest in exploring deep ideas with their seat mates. Yet they did, because they were asked.

3. Uncomfortable is OK

Here’s a bit of hypocrisy for you: I have been an advocate for our church adding some variety to our sermons and finding new ways to teach old messages. Yet when confronted with this bold new way of presenting a lesson, I was more skeptical than a cowboy at a vegan restaurant.

That disquieting, uncomfortable feeling has a name – growing.

Don’t walk down a dark alley at night in a strange town – that’s an uncomfortable feeling you should listen to. But when your own community challenges you to grow beyond where you are, don’t reject it out of hand.

Our connection to the community gives us the safety to grow. That connection allows us to venture beyond our comfort zone because we know we can safely retreat back if necessary.

Contrarily, stasis might feel comfortable, but it leads to decline over time. I can think of a dozen non-profit organizations that keep doing the same old thing. They’re being passed by groups willing to offer a new path. If you are a friend to one of these calcified organizations, have the uncomfortable conversation to challenge the traditional wisdom.

An Uncomfortable Invitation

I can’t promise that when Youth Sunday rolls around next year I won’t see a return of that usual nervous feeling. This year, though, I am happy to have faced that discomfort, and I’m encouraged in the way the youth of our church invited that discomfort.

Where can you invite positive discomfort? How far can you expand your definition of community? Your philanthropic dollar is an excellent way to push the envelope for yourself. Find a group to support doing work you care about in a non-traditional way. Do a site visit to a group you like to really engage with the work being done. Attend an event to go face-to-face with people who share your passion but perhaps not zip code.

In doing so, you make both our community and yourself stronger.

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