Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Voices of the Young

Last week, I spent time tracking the activity at the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Two Hundred and Twenty Second General Assembly.  The medium: #twitter, which gave a peculiar realtime stream-of-psychotic-consciousness feel to the event.  Grim fundamentalist trolls and umbraged Social Justice Warriors mingled their tweets with moments of joy and fellowship, procedural in-house-language and the laments of exhausted committee members, all speaking with one single voice under one single hashtag.  

Taken together, it was a strange voice.

 It was like listening to the Gerasene demoniac give color commentary at the Macy's Day parade.

I followed the last GA on #twitter, too, but this year feels...different.  Perhaps it's that I'm two years older.  Or perhaps it's that over the last two years, I've stopped considering myself part of the progressive wing of the church.  Or...most likely...it's that #twitter as a medium lends itself to incoherence.

Seen through the lens of that medium, the assembly felt like a dissonant mix of churning entropy and procedural rigidity, storm-froth beating against the superstructure of a rusted oil rig.  

In the midst of the chatter, though, a theme surfaced and resurfaced over the course of the event: YAADs.

Meaning, in the acronym-obsessive parlance of my oldline community: Young Adult Advisory Delegates.  The goal of the YAAD program is simple.  We want the voices of young people.  We want to hear them.  But 18-22 year olds just don't tend to be part of the organic leadership of the church.  They certainly can't be Teaching El...sorry..."Ministers of Word and Sacrament."  The process of becoming a pastor in the PC(USA) requires not just an undergraduate degree, but a completed M.Div., not to mention an array of other hoops. 

But 18-22 year olds are also unlikely to be Ruling Elders, charged with formal leadership within a local church.  Institutional churches look for developed skill sets and experience in leadership, because that's what organizations do.   And if you're not an elder, you're not going to be a commissioner to Presbytery.  And if you're not a commissioner to Presbytery, you won't have developed the relationships that get you elected to serve as a commissioner to General Assembly.

So from this, we get Young Adult Advisory Delegates.  Hey, presto, young people at the General Assembly!  I don't get the appeal myself.  Well, maybe I get a little bit of it.  It's travel, it's an opportunity to share in fellowship with other young folks, and a chance to engage with some big-thinky-things on a national level. It's an opportunity for some excellent worship, and to hear some of the best and most engaging voices in our denomination.  So I get that.  But there are negatives.  There's conflict, and politicking, and all the fun that entails.  Plus, there are big cumbersome parliamentary meetings.  Lord, but are there.

Back when I was a whippersnapper, the idea of going to a huge formal Robert's Rules meeting would have filled my soul with mortal horror.   Given the choice between listening to a discussion of an amendment to an amendment to a motion at 11:35 pm and a stint at Gitmo, I might have to think a little bit.

When I was young, my spirit longed for unmediated person-to-person conversation, desert contemplation, and the sweat of direct service to neighbor.  Heck, it still does.

But what about the influence that comes from engaging with others in a system, and casting your vote as a commissioner?

Only YAADs aren't exactly commissioners.  They can be polled prior to a vote, but it's a poll.  They "advise."  They're there to be there, not rising from the dynamics of the organic church, but from a structurally-mediated anxiety response.  "We need the young people," the system frets.  "But our standard business practice does not bring them."

It seems, to my admittedly cynical eyes, a synthetic thing, the transparent tokenism of a system that requires institutional fertilizer to remediate the soil.  It is unrepresentative of the dynamics of the particular church, a parallel system established to assuage a institutional failing.  And if you have an unrepresentative system layered on top of a polity whose identity is representational, you've got a dissonance.  It feels awkward, in the way that human systems so often feel awkward.

Within my own wee kirk, hearing the voices of the young is easier.

We've had on Session, since I've been pastor, young adults.  I've had a session member in their twenties.  A session member in her late teens.  Not in an "advisory" capacity, either, but full on Elders, charged with being part of the servant cadre that keeps our little fellowship truckin' along.  Heck, if you're confirmed and you're called, you're welcome to serve.

When the young want to lead, we're small enough that it's not a source of stress.  Little churches are relational beings, organic of structure and elemental of spirit.  We're mutually supportive enough...and institutionally non-anxious enough...to pull that off.

Like this last Sunday, in worship.  There were to be three worship leaders, myself included.  Me, preaching and praying and reading the third scripture.  An elder, leading the people in prayers.  And a little guy, V., who'd had the gumption a few weeks back to go up to a Session member and asked if he could please sometime be a liturgist.  V.'d not always been comfortable reading, but he's been getting better and more confident, and he knows everyone in the church loves him.  So of course we said yes. V. was lined up to read the Psalm and the first reading.  Not as an "advisory" liturgist.  But right there, being the church, just the same as anyone else.

Only there'd been a miscommunication, and another one of the young folk of the church had thought it was her chance to read.   A.'s a thoughtful girl, smart and reflective and just on the cusp of entering tweenerdom.  She was, I could tell, really looking forward to reading, and a little crestfallen that she might not get to serve.

"You can take the third scripture, the one I usually read," I told her, which seemed to brighten her up.  So I sat, and listened to V. read from the Word, his fingers tracing across the lines.   And then I sat again, making space for A. to offer up the scripture that would be the foundation of my sermon.  They both did a great job.

There we were, a little church, with a worship in which our young want to take on those roles, and we're more than happy to let their voices fill our ears.

It seems so simple.