March 5, 2019

Whose Church Is It, Anyway?

Is Heaven taking chances on us?

Courtney Ray

My friend’s little boy was barely out of the toddler stage himself, so we were unsure how he was adjusting to a new sibling.

“How do you feel about the baby?” I asked.

“She’s OK, I guess,” he replied. “But she doesn’t do anything.”

Indeed, infants—especially newborns—don’t “do” much. Sleeping, eating, and dirtying diapers is kind of their entire thing. But in fairness, there’s not much more they can do. Which is what makes the Incarnation that much more phenomenal.

At Christmastime everybody-—or let’s say lots of people, at any rate—want to celebrate one of these infants: the one who was Creator and Lord of all, who chose to become our Savior by becoming like you and me, starting out in the same way we all do, wrapped in human skin as a helpless infant, totally vulnerable. The half-Jewish king of the Jews was so impressed by the vulnerability of this King and Lord of all that he staged a welcome party for Him based on that specific fact. The party consisted of dispatching some of his military to kill everybody the Baby’s age.

Think how uncomfortable vulnerability is for you right now. You may be fully endowed physically, or aware of some area of disability, whether or not the rest of the world knows about it. But whether you use special parking or not, imagine this: imagine being omnipotent and choosing human vulnerability; relinquishing your power, becoming a fetus to come a-borning to the arms and care of a teenage girl.

My home church elected me, their vulnerable new college grad, to church office, at 19 years old.

In the hands of this child-turning-woman God placed the fate of the entire world! He really stretches it, doesn’t He? We aren’t just talking about putting an adolescent in charge; we’re also talking about a first-timer. To say she had a big responsibility is an epic understatement. God could have argued that at least she needed some experience first.

Another Perspective

Evidently, vulnerability is not unacceptable to our God. Many of us, by contrast, know that it would be irresponsible to allow church youth of Mary’s age to do “too much.” Sure, there’s talk about involving youth, but the mature conclusion so often is to assign them as auxiliaries to “real leadership.” Often enough we know that they are too vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks. Often enough we know that the church would be too vulnerable in their immature hands. Vulnerability for us humans seems a thing to be avoided as far as possible. Which perhaps expresses itself most clearly when our church’s definition of “youth” includes 35-year-olds, themselves already old enough to be parents of teenage youth.

Meanwhile, for good or evil, the world outside our church walls features Mark Zuckerberg, with his more than 33,000 employees at Facebook, still not yet 35 years old; North Korea, with a population of more than 25 million, ruled by a tyrant just past his thirty-sixth birthday in January; and a crown prince running the show next to his king in the Arabian Gulf, who turns 34 in August 2019.

Whether you revel in or recoil at my examples, you still share my question: have we got it right inside our church? Sometimes my own pastoral attempts to place young people in positions of leadership have been met with less or more resistance. But my zeal for it is experiential, personal: it issued from the inspiration of my home church that elected me, their vulnerable new college grad, to church office, at 19 years old. Not only did their faith in me solidify my own previous commitment to answer the call to pastoral ministry; it also served as inspiration to other young people in that congregation.

Getting the participation of my young and vulnerable agemates seems to have been easier for them because “one of them” was asking for it. In fact, many volunteered to work because they knew that neither they nor I would see them as merely a token presence. My experience since has been that high school and college students, with all their overflow of unsureness and inexperience, actually look forward to doing things in their churches, when their contributions are not considered as merely perfunctory. Admittedly, not every church has been equally open to the suggestion of having youth lead, even though I, their pastor, belonged to the “Adventist youth” age group.

Nevertheless, there is a striking difference in engagement for many young people when they feel they are a valuable and integral part of the church. Their attitude toward participating is much different from when they feel like a plugged-in cog.

Your Perspective

Your congregation may not be enthusiastic about handing over the treasury department to the plucky 14-year-old. But departments such as Sabbath School and Outreach are particularly good fits for young leaders with ideas for facilitating connections that older members may have never thought of. And churches can create positive spaces for leadership development. The Adventist Youth (AY) department is great for youth programming and leadership—provided the church supports it the same way they do divine worship services, instead of ignoring it because it’s the young people’s thing.

Take a Bible count on vulnerability—read “youth”—from antiquity to today: Joseph, Esther, Mary, the Twelve, James White, Ellen Harmon. From Old Testament through New, and equally with our own church history, youth have been leading for God all along. The inception of GYC (Generation. Youth. Christ) more than a decade ago was a renaissance of God-fearing Adventist youth leaders in gospel training and witnessing supported by many leaders in our denomination. But alas, youth representation in so many of our congregations, as at conference, union conference, division, and General Conference levels, hardly suggests overwhelming enthusiasm for the services of “anyone under 35.”

If God could entrust the fate of one world and the moral destiny of the whole universe to an adolescent, first-timer girl, what keeps us from trusting God’s youth with leadership in His church? Are we, and He, on the same page with this? Are we right to be more afraid of vulnerability than He is?

A native New Yorker, Courtney Ray, a pastor and clinical psychologist, lives and serves in New York City, United States.