by John Stoltzfus, conference youth minister
Recently, I spent three days with a group of conference leaders who work in youth ministry. This is an annual gathering at a beach house that has no agenda other than to be with one another, share what is happening in our lives and ministries, and eat some good food. Let’s just say that youth workers know how to have a good time when we get together!
What dominated our conversation this time, however, was a lament of the current state of affairs in Mennonite Church USA: the dwindling numbers and interest in the events we plan for youth and youth workers; the fracturing of churches and conferences; the passive aggressive behavior which is so prevalent in conflicts; a lack of healthy leadership (including disappointment in ourselves); the church caving to cultural patterns of polarizing behavior; a lack of the empathy and forbearance in our church relationships that love requires; the list could go on. As we dug our toes into the sand, we waited with one another and sought to listen deeply in our grief and disappointment.
One of us commented that it feels like we are in a waiting period. We are waiting for what will be torn down and what will emerge. It didn’t help the mood that the weather was overcast and there was a chill to the wind coming off the ocean. Someone volunteered to go and collect coats and blankets so that we could stay warm.
Yet, as we huddled together, we also noticed signs of hope. We shared stories of emerging faith and maturity in our children. The more seasoned parents among us noted that this can take a long time. We noticed signs of new life and emerging ministries in our churches and conferences. We rejoiced in the collaborative spirit we often see among youth pastors and workers. We reflected on the increased interest in Anabaptist thought and practice from groups and churches outside the Mennonite Church. We chuckled with holy amazement as we swapped stories of “problem” youth in our youth groups who grow up to be effective and mature Christian leaders.
We need places in our faith community where we can grieve together and share our disappointments. We also need community to help us move beyond ourselves and notice where God is stirring on the edges. We can choose to focus on the fears and anxieties of what we perceive is being lost or we can lean into the assurance that what God is bringing about is good even if we have a hard time imagining what it might look like.
In this time of uncertainty, I long for a renewed sense of community to emerge that is willing to wait with one another until Christ returns. Each generation in the church has a new set of perplexing issues and challenges and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever come to a final resolution to settle our differences. Our youth need to see the church model a way to be authentic community together when so much in our world is fragmenting and tearing apart. I long for a church that has a vision of the community that will one day gather around God’s banquet table and then seeks to live into that community today.
I long for a community that is willing to simply be with one another even when the weather is overcast and cold.
Our theme for this year’s joint Conference Assembly with Eastern District Conference is “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping.” Conference Assembly will be held November 14-15 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa.