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Tell the Story

Discipleship is… Listening to Everyone’s Interpretations

Centering youth in the conversation
by Faith+Lead | October 20, 2021

By Deacon Julie Stecker

Discipleship is at the core of the work that we do among young people. We can offer high-energy events, meaningful worship experiences, and service projects that leave an impact, but if we don’t connect them to following Jesus day in and day out, young people leave our events—and the church—feeling like consumers rather than members of a community. That feeling of true belonging in a community, of being an integral part of something larger than yourself, is essential for young people who are often relegated to being the “youth representative,” speaking for all their peers at tables full of adults and learning that their individual and collective voices carry less weight than those of their elders, simply because of their age.

But young people, by and large, carry a curiosity that we tend to lose as we get older. They are natural investigators. Rather than nod along to our sermons and lesson plans, they ask, “Why do we do it that way? What does the Bible actually say about this topic? How does this parable Jesus shared have anything to do with our lives today?” At this critical time of faith and identity formation in a person’s life, our job as the church isn’t to provide answers to those questions (though sometimes, there are straightforward answers we can share); it’s to provide spaces where we affirm the faithfulness of asking, and join in the wonder.

Synod Reads Together

In the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA, we began an initiative in 2019 to encourage everyone to read the Bible more frequently called Delaware-Maryland Synod Reads Together. At its launch, this initiative took the form of a Facebook group and a podcast. In the Facebook group, which is still going strong today, a group of seven reflection writers each take a day of the week to share brief thoughts on the appointed Moravian Daily Texts. The group of writers changes a bit every three months and almost always includes a youth or young adult—not writing on behalf of young people everywhere, but just sharing their timely reflections on the text as they see it. It seems counterintuitive, but by not having an identified “young person quarter” or highlighting an occasional “youth writer,” the initiative communicates that all of us have unique experiences and insights about faith and Scripture, regardless of our age.

Lay Readers Discuss the Bible

Similarly, as we launched the Facebook group, we also began a podcast series titled “word for Word.” This every-other-week series featured a conversation between our host, The Honorable Yolanda Tanner, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge, and a new guest—always a lay person—discussing the upcoming Gospel text for the week. The intent of this podcast was to provide space for discussions of Scripture that weren’t driven by someone with an advanced theological education. 

Too often in the church, we assume that pastors and deacons must have the final word on all things Bible-related, because “they’re the ones who went to school for this!” But that assumption leaves out the vast richness of the thoughts, questions, and experiences of (literally) 99.5% of the ELCA. Our guests included lawyers, public health workers, artisans, educators, consultants, and more. But the episodes that seemed to strike a chord with most people I spoke to were the ones where Judge Tanner spoke with a youth or young adult. 

Listeners—pastors especially—were astounded at the wisdom they brought to the text, the questions the text raised for them, the thoughtfulness of their responses to the host’s questions. While we simply wanted to achieve the same goal as the Facebook group reflections, our young and young adult guests seemed to raise the overall level of respect listeners had for the perspectives of young people. 

They were amazed at the boldness these young people showed in their interpretations of the text, unafraid of thinking about them in a new way, different from what they had read on their Sunday school leaflets just a few years before. While the onset of the pandemic shortened the life of “word for Word,” its impact continued on, with some of our congregations inviting young people to be a part of worship and proclamation of the Word in new ways while exploring how to take church online.

As we’ve regrouped and figured out what our “new normal” looks like, we’ve launched yet another podcast, one that’s a bit easier to record from a distance and can thus incorporate even more voices. While “word for Word” focused on conversations about Scripture, “This is My Story invites people to simply share just that: their story. Sure, it can feel intimidating to talk about the Bible, but sometimes it feels like an even more monumental task to talk about our faith. This podcast is showing that in just 10 minutes (the average length of an episode) small stories of God working in our lives can shine brightly, even helping someone else see God in a new way in their life. Again, we have mixed in people of all ages and backgrounds to show that there’s no one right story—and that our young people have important stories to share right now, even when they haven’t lived quite as long as some of the other guests.

When it comes to initiatives and programs about discipleship specifically for youth, we’re taking that on in a big way this year. In February, we began a life-giving partnership with the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod to share the work of Youth + Family Ministry, strengthening our ministry to, with, and through young people. 

As we discerned the theme for our first in-person youth events since the pandemic began, and our first events together as two synods, our young people told us that they wanted to talk about discipleship. They had so often learned that, to be a good follower of Jesus, you have to complete an imaginary checklist of things like attending worship, getting confirmed, giving a certain amount of money to the church, and so on. But discipleship is so much more than ticking items off a list, and they know this—they just aren’t sure what it looks like in their everyday lives. 

So, at our middle and high school retreats, we’ll be exploring what the journey of discipleship looks like: forming community, asking questions and sharing doubts, taking risks and confronting challenges on behalf of our neighbors, and giving ourselves permission to rest and renew along the way. “Discipleship” can be one of those insider, church-y words that rolls off of our tongues and over our heads, and as a result, we neglect to equip young people to explore what it really means. Instead of trying to repackage or rebrand it as something else that’s cooler or trendier, we’re claiming it for what it is—one of the most significant ways to look for and connect with the living God.

Young people are ready to be disciples for Jesus. In a world where they witness injustice at every turn, where they have no voice or vote in the direction of the country they’re growing up in, where they see suffering up close among their peers or even in their own lives, they know that the Good News of Jesus Christ can actually matter to someone in need. As the adults who have power and privilege throughout the church, it’s our job to not just equip them with the tools they need to talk about their faith and share it with others, but to let them set the example for how it can be done with compassion, abundance, and deep love for every one of God’s children.

About the Author
Deacon Julie Stecker is an Assistant to the Bishop for Communications and Youth and Family Ministry in the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA, in partnership with the Metro Washington DC Synod.

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