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2008-11-18 issue:

Uncluttering the call

How to get connected with our young adults

by Lori Leaman

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Connectivity is a term that describes not only the wired state of this Internet generation but the desire of our young adults to become deeply connected to the Mennonite church and God’s global world. “Continue to walk with us and mentor us,” was the call of our young adults in Mennonite Church USA as they presented their testimony to the delegate assembly at San José in July 2007. How can we nurture this younger generation to fulfill their desire to “live the call” of God in their lives?

Generation Y, or Gen Y, is the name often used to describe those young people born between 1980 and 2000. As a professor at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., I have the privilege of learning from and with this vibrant generation, the Gen Ys. The youth and young adults of Generation Y are often described in the literature as supreme team players, multitaskers, digitally connected, holding high expectations for self and others, and fiercely loyal. These descriptors expanded with breath and life as I read the young adult statement to the delegate assembly at San José. Generation Y is not only the future of Mennonite Church USA but the present church as well. Am I—or we as a church—doing all we can to nurture this generation so that they not only hear the call but become equipped to live it?

We need their call to leap boundaries: As the most ethnically diverse generation in the United States, Gen Y has remained digitally connected 24/7, around the globe. Born into a culture of ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity, Gen Ys are often described as authentic team players with an incredible acceptance for differences. They are slow to judge others. We in Mennonite Church USA were reminded by the messages at San José that as a church we must not hide our spiritual treasure but learn to share it with others, leaping boundaries of language, culture and experience.

From their own voice: “We come from varied walks of life ... we have built relationships that transcend geography ... we desire an openness and hospitality across age, race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status” (Young Adults, San José Assembly). Mennonite Church USA needs this rare gift that Gen Y has to offer. How can we nurture their calling to unity?

We need their call to integrity and heart service: Raised in a generation of violence, political upheaval and economic uncertainty, Gen Ys have witnessed a lifetime of tragedy and crisis before the age of 20. Witnessing the self-destruction of the integrity of countless national heroes and top political leaders, our young adults are often characterized by a high social consciousness and a strong desire to find authenticity and integrity in others. Raised in schools that emphasized service as the fourth R, Gen Ys seek ways to become adults connected not only to digital media but to service in their future world. Generation Y seeks to live the call of authenticity.

From their own voice:
“We want a church that practices its beliefs with consistency and integrity. ... Some of us are connected to our home congregations, and others are finding it hard to connect to any congregation ... we want more ways to get involved in the church, both in local congregations and at broader organizational levels. ... We seek community.” Mennonite Church USA needs the rare gift that Gen Y has to offer. How can we nurture their calling?

We need their call to hope and community: This generation has also been raised by parents who have been highly involved in the lives of their children, creating a strong sense of family, community and opportunity. Gen Ys are positive, energetic and collaborative, bringing hope to this world. Raised by parents and teachers who have taught them that anything is within their grasp, our young adults carry a collective energy and zest for a future that is not limited by boundaries of the church’s past experiences or failures.

From their own voice: “We are seekers in our faith and full of complex questions ... we desire the church community to be a place where we can grapple with complex questions, realities and issues without preconceived outcomes. ... Young adults have been called the future of the church. We come before you today to say that the future has already begun.” Mennonite Church USA needs the rare gift that Gen Y has to offer. How can we nurture their calling?

They need our nurture: The students who walk through the doors of the Campus Center of EMU or any of our churches are not lacking a drive to become engaged with their brothers, the widows and orphans, their neighbors or their enemies. On the contrary, our young people have been so well trained that they engage in almost every opportunity that comes their way. Christ modeled the invitation for us to “go ye into the world,” and we, the parents and elders of Gen Y, have created opportunity after opportunity for our children and youth to do just that. For many of us, our adult lives have been centered on giving our children every opportunity so that they may choose the future they desire.

But is the “provision of opportunity” the equivalent of nurture or of Christ’s model of “sending” into the world? I sit in my office with yet another student, and I do not often hear a lament that opportunities are limited. Rather, I hear the voice of a young person crying out, not for more opportunity or affirmation, but for true nurture ... for the “leading” of God to begin to be revealed through a trusted adult. Can it be that we have failed to help our young people discover their true God-given gifts? That we have tried to assist them in becoming good at everything, but “called” to nothing? Many of Christ’s commands to his disciples assisted them in seeing their own weakness and in sensing the hand of God tapping them on the shoulder for the next, specific task. I was a young person in the Mennonite Church who was “tapped on the shoulder” by God through the members of His body. I have been given a multitude of opportunities; however, they have been the result of true nurture in which others have seen something specific in me that I might turn over to God for His purposes.

Our young people note that we have given them countless opportunities, but that we may be failing to name their individual gifts, a step necessary for transitioning from hearing, to living, the call: “We have been offered spaces ... We are thankful for the leadership we have been given ... We struggle with the tension between opportunities ...  Continue to walk with us and mentor us through our questions ... Help us recognize our God-given gifts and talents.”

We need to unclutter his call together: Our children and young adults are already a generation that value authenticity. Authenticity, integrity and openness, however, are grounded in the act of first identifying and then honoring, the beautiful uniqueness of each child of God. I have been afraid at times to name the gifts that I see in a young person, fearing that I might impinge on a young adult’s opportunity to choose who he will become. Thankfully, our youth have taught me that this fear is not of God. As I have had the courage to embark on a journey with a young adult and with God, my Father has given me the courage to identify gifts and to raise questions that allow the young person to seek and discover the boundaries, the specifics, of God’s calling. When I have had the courage to “name” an authentic gifting, to shoulder-tap, or to ask the hard questions of a young adult, I have seen our young people soar towards God, instead of toward ever-increasing opportunities. May we cast out all fear and step forward in faith to unclutter the call of our young people, so that they may become authentically connected to God’s will on their lives, not just connected to more opportunities.

Lori Leaman is an assistant professor of teacher education at Eastern Mennonite University and is a member of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.

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