I recently returned home from the Progressive Youth Ministry conference (PYM) held in Chicago. As a progressive Christian from a part of the country where “progressive” and – dare I say it – “liberal” are not words used in polite company, PYM was like a welcome home party.

In my experience, the Church can be a place more for small talk than a place to ask tough questions, and a place where you are encouraged to keep your less-than-popular perspective to yourself.

In Chicago at PYM, I found an overwhelmingly safe space. Beautiful and honest language was given to thoughts I’ve had for years but have not been able to articulate. Questions about topics you just don’t ask about here in Texas were accepted. Wrestling – even playful wrestling – with scripture and theology was encouraged. And while we checked our coats needed in the brisk Chicago wind, there was no need to check our authentic selves at the door.

PYM reminded me of another safe space I found myself in two years ago – RMN’s 2013 convocation in Baltimore.

A warm greeting came with the understanding that I was loved without condition, as was each and every person that came in the door. Difficult issues were approached with openness and honesty and without fear. For years I have been glad to see those doing Reconciling ministry, and happy to see those in youth ministry who work to ensure safe spaces for our youth – our gay youth, our straight youth, our trans and cis youth, our youth of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, our questioning youth, our struggling, growing, finding-their-place-in-the-world youth.

Yet, it is an understatement to say I have been disappointed to see youth ministers tell youth to be something other than themselves, pained to see youth made to feel like the church does not have a place for them, and frustrated to watch so many of us shy away from hard questions.

In all this, I have been watching with critique and waiting with expectation, instead of living into my call.

I have been quietly, busily taking care of my own little corner of youth, instead of stepping up. I have been a spectator of the church, watching others engage in dialogue about who is included fully in the body of Christ and who is kept on the margins, instead of being a participator, lifting my voice in this chorus. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In closing worship at PYM, Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York spoke of the radical work of youth ministry. Radical, but so simple.

Youth are in the tumultuous time of their lives when they are in the process of becoming who they are and who they are called to be, and youth directors are, as Butler says, “up in the balcony holding a safe space for those who are doing the hard work of becoming and desperately need a place for hope.”

This space for those who are becoming is what the church is called to be, and our youth need to know we are there being the church for and with them.

This space in the balcony is not a place to watch, but a vital, active part of the body of Christ. Imagine what the church could be if the balcony people, along with the entire church, were to step into full embodiment of their call. Imagine if the whole church were like the balcony – a place of hope that we hold for each other while we all are working to become.

It is with this hope that I am excited to introduce Current – the youth program at Gather at the River this August. We hope that within this gathering of progressive United Methodists, we can create a space that will feel like a welcome home party for our youth. A place where youth are not only warmly greeted, but know they are loved for who they are, encouraged in the hard work of becoming, given the vision, freedom, and inspiration to step into who God is calling them to be.

Current is a unique opportunity to BE the church for and with our youth.

We will assure our youth that they are loved and not alone. We will host open conversation to begin building relationships across cities and states. We will make time for joy, games, and laughter. In this safe space, we will ask hard questions about God, the church, and ourselves. We will set aside a place to engage creatively in prayer. We will not watch from afar.

We will intentionally live into being the church in this place.

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…” James 1:22a

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Shelley Walters

Shelley Walters, Youth Coordinator for Current, is Director of Community Life at Trinity UMC, a Reconciling Congregation, in Austin, Texas. She previously served as Youth Director in two other Austin area congregations.She graduated from the University of Texas with a major in religious studies and is currently working toward an M.Div. degree at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.She was so inspired by participating in the RMN convocation in 2013 and wants to share some of that passion, energy and spirit with youth from Texas and across the country at Gather at the River. For more information about current, contact Shelley Walters at shelley@tumc.org

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