Special guest blog by: Rev. Paul Amlin
Today is Paul Amlin’s last day in his role as Program Director for Youth Ministry in our ELCA Churchwide Offices. Over the last four years, Paul has worked tirelessly to support adults working with youth, and leadership development for young people. Paul begins a new call March 1 as the pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa. We’re grateful for Paul’s work and his support. And we’re grateful that he’s sharing these final thoughts with us as he leaves his position. You can continue to follow Paul’s ministry on Twitter: @lordoflifedbq and http://www.facebook.com/lordoflifedbq.
I’ve spent the last four years traveling across this church. As I prepare to take my leave from service at the churchwide expression of the ELCA, I want to take a moment to share with you why I have hope for the church (and why I think you should too!). This won’t be one of those “9 reasons” or “10 ways” kind of blog posts, rather, just some observations and takeaways after spending a LOT of quality time with folks from the Carolinas to California, from Oregon to Florida and a lot in between. So here we go…
I’ll start with a moment I shared with Lyle Griner in Detroit as we watched the ballroom from the doors during the Extravaganza. The room was literally pulsing as music blasted and a thousand+ ministry friends jumped and danced and high fived each other. Lyle and I couldn’t help but smile and I don’t remember if it was Lyle or me who said, “I wish people who think the church is dying could be here now!” Detroit was the high point for attendance at the E, the high point for membership in the Network, and a major high point for the board of directors as we realized the goals set forth in a strategic plan years before.
Speaking of Detroit… The ELCA Youth Gathering was a major high point for me. I had the unique opportunity to split time between the convention center team I served and traveling around working the ELCA Youth Twitter and Facebook accounts. I have been blessed to be a part of four Gathering planning teams and I have attended every Gathering since 1997 (River of Hope, woot-woot). Detroit felt different. The young people I engaged were fired up to be there, that’s normal for this event after all, but they were also engaged in the theme, in service, in wanting to make a difference, in caring about how their church was present in Detroit and what that might look like back at home. I am more and more convinced that the Gathering has become the “Lutheran Big Tent” revival the church needs every three years to inspire and empower young leaders to rise up and model radical faith in Jesus Christ that inspires loving our neighbors wherever we are planted.
I have been blessed to sit with planners for events like Invitation to Service, Leadership Lab, AFFIRM, The Disciple Project and Camp Hope Training, multiple synod youth events and to spend time being present on behalf of the ELCA to learn about and share the amazing work that is happening across this church. The young people I meet at these events are there because they love Jesus and the church, and because they want to make a difference. The leaders who give selflessly and tirelessly of themselves to make these events happen are there because they, too, believe in the transformative power of Jesus’ love and that we are stronger and more effective together than we are apart.
I have been blessed to work with some of the best people the church has to offer. A few of those people have shared my same passion for equipping and empowering young leaders through the Youth Core Leadership Team. Lisa, Chris, Darcy, Rachel, Erik, and now a new Eric have spent time and energy to equip high school youth through this program of leadership development and faith formation. I’m proud of our work and of the young people whom have passed through our lives in the past four years. I look forward to hearing the stories of their lives as instruments of hope and love in Jesus Christ through our church and as they lean into God’s calling for them as leaders in the world through vocation and service.
Speaking of amazing events… The ELCA Youth Leadership Summit will happen for the fourth time this November in Houston, Texas. I have been blown away by the young leaders and their adult travel companions from the majority of the synods of our church. These people show up in love with Jesus, excited by how the Spirit will move in and through them as they learn what it means to be a part of the ELCA and be a church that speaks and acts out in love for the world and our neighbor. I have told this story several times, but I will always be moved by a story from our inaugural event in Detroit. Tia Upchurch-Freelove had finished speaking about ELCA Advocacy and we asked youth to share what they were thinking. A young lady stood up and said, “I never knew our church did this, I didn’t know what it was called, but this is what I want to do with my life.” (See, I just got goosebumps again!).
I am also proud of all the people who work so hard in congregations, synods and here at churchwide to live into what it means to be the church for the world. I wish that you could have just a glimpse of what I’ve seen! Too often we are all detached from each other, not understanding how incredibly important we all are to each other. Together we feed the hungry, give clean water to the thirsty, give hope to the hopeless, give care and respite to those who suffer, teach and evangelize around the globe, welcome the stranger and humbly serve the other without telling each other how God has worked through us to be Good News. Perhaps we can get better at this? I encourage you to bring your youth groups for a tour of the Lutheran Center in Chicago, take your synod staff to lunch, make a phone call to tell someone you are praying for them, write a note of encouragement for the hard days in ministry we all have. You would be amazed at how powerful these things can be! I keep a file folder filled with cards and notes.
Our church is still becoming what it needs to be. Remember that. We are once and always reforming, being made new as the slogan says, and being the hands of God at work in our world, together. Together. Together. None of us is alone and none of us is stronger in the absence of the other. I have hope for this church because I have met enough of you to know that Jesus is not dead, but very much alive in God’s people. I have hope for this church because I know enough young leaders who love Jesus and this church that I am sure God is at work in all of this. I have hope because I cannot do anything else, thanks be to God! Now it’s time for all of us to name and claim how God is at work and on the loose around us bringing Good News to the world.
So there you have it. Thanks for reading along. Thanks for your ministry and for your passion for the Good News we share. Remember that you are God’s beloved child and nothing can separate you from God’s love.
5:00pm yesterday represented the end of a season. At 4:30pm, our final service of Affirmation of Baptism was complete. By 5:00pm, most of the photos with kids and parents would be done, and I’d be on my way out to the car.
This season didn’t have a name, but it is real. This season began at 5:30pm on Saturday, September 7th. The first worship service of Rally Weekend. This season, which runs roughly 7 weeks each year in my congregation, begins with Rally Weekend and concludes with Reformation Weekend, when our 3rd graders receive their Bibles and our 10th graders are confirmed.
This is one of our busiest seasons. In between these two major weekends, it seems like there is something “big” happening almost every week: retreats, learning festivals, leader and teacher training events…every week it feels like we’re preparing for events that take a lot of time and energy. I love that, by the way. I love busy. I love when our building is full of energy and people. I love it when the buses roll and retreat groups head out. I love it when families come to learn how to practice their faith at home. I love it when there is conversation and laughter within our building. I love the sounds and sights of faith being formed.
But in my work, I have definitely discovered that there are seasons to ministry; each with is own unique flavor and feel. Part of what I have needed to do is to recognize these seasons, and to figure out how to work within each one. The ability to do this is one of the skills that I believe contributes to longevity and continuity. I wish that I knew this when I started out in ministry. The amount of time I wasted, trying to cram my ideas into a season that wasn’t appropriate led me to a lot of frustration and close to burn out.
From now through Advent, we move into a regular rhythm, when our focus is on growing our regular, weekly programming. The end of December and beginning of January gives us a chance to “breathe” a bit. Then we move into a heavy planning cycle, focusing on plans for summer and next fall. Then Lent, which is…well, Lent. Easter through Pentecost, we focus on ending programs well, and then summer is a sprint.
Different congregations and contexts will have different seasons. Being a student of what season you are in is critical.
I love what each season brings. There is almost a liturgical rhythm to the programming year. But I also love when the seasons change, and we move to the next. And while I’ve loved the last seven weeks, when I climbed into my car at 5:00pm yesterday, I smiled and breathed a sign of relief. Today for me, a new season begins. The vibe, feel and rhythm of the time will change. My focus can shift from events and milestones to community and formation.
I’m glad for the change. And I’m pretty sure that in a few weeks, I’ll begin looking forward to the next shift of seasons, and to see how God will be at work then.
Networked in Christ,
God is up to something new within our community, within our church.
The church talks a good game when it comes to community. We focus on “being” together in congregations. But the world is shifting.
Our very understanding of what community is changing as a relationships in a digital age are stretching our understanding of what it is to be together. Communities are no longer exclusively geographic, but instead can be defined by interest, education or affinity.
At the same time, the church struggles with how to do ministry with young adults. The number of blogs and videos that have popped up in the last two years explaining why or how the church has “lost” young adults is almost overwhelming; they describe the problem well. And any time you gather a group of clergy, or congregational staff folk together, and you bring up the topic of young adults, the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth is almost immediate.
No one really knows what to do about it.
Drawing together young adults to live together in an intentional community for a “gap-year” experience. The Living-Learning web site describes a communal experience that would center around faith practices, such as service projects (10-15 hours a week), theological reflection, bible study, spiritual exercise, prayer, worship leadership, and participation in local congregations and ministries. A skilled facilitator would lead and administer each community (half-time to full-time salary range), with help from local volunteers. A network of Christians, often through local congregations, would pledge to support these young adults in the experience, and in return the young adults would share their valuable perspectives, hours of service, and gifts with the communities that host them.
Visualize “The Real World” meets service-learning meets Jesus.
The church has a tradition of intentional community to draw on, (see Holden Village and the Highlander Folk School),we have a vibrant and lively theology of community and ecclesiology and we have a deep need to engage young adults for the sake of Christ’s mission in the world.
We also have Josh, one of the most passionate people I have encountered around this issue. He is a gift to the church.
I am occasionally asked by young adults about ways that they can participate in mission after high school. We’ll talk about seminary…we’ll talk about Lutheran Volunteer Corps or AmeriCorps…we’ll talk about Teach for America…we’ll talk about Holden… I am very excited that there is something new to talk about. I am excited that there is the possibility for community, reflection and service to be drawn together into an experience that is really about discerning meaning for individuals, communities and the world.
I’m excited about the Living-Learning Initiative and what it can mean for the life of those who participate and for the church. The first pilot community is opening up in September in Toledo, Ohio. We’ll be watching closely. I hope you will be too!
You can also follow the initiative on Facebook.
There is change happening in the church. Maybe it’s a new awareness…perhaps it’s a new reformation…I’m not sure what to call it. But something is different. There are new conversations taking place. There are new questions being asked. When I enter into conversations with those who do ministry alongside young people and their families, the first question I hear is no longer “what should I do at youth group on Sunday?” or “How do I do fundraising?”
The questions that I hearing now are more along the lines of:
- “I’m wondering where God is calling us to go?”
- “We’re trying to figure out what’s working?”
- “How do we understand God’s mission in this place?”
- “What is faith formation?”
While these may not seem like they should be new questions, in the world of faith-formation with the young, they kind of are. The primary concern used to be with technique…strategy…programs. The assumption was that faith language was not foreign to young people. My sense is that the landscape has shifted and that folks are now taking a 10,000 foot view, and are wondering much more fundamental questions. This because the world in which we live is changing, and the landscape the church occupies is so radically different than it was even 10 years ago. The old assumptions clearly don’t apply anymore.
These are the issues the Extravaganza tackled this year (Form: Faith Formation in a Missional Age). These are the issues that the Practice Discipleship Initiative are tackling. These are the issues that are being talked about on the Network’s Facebook group, in the webinars and other resources from Vibrant Faith Ministries and our other partners. This is what the SYMBOL Network (Synod staff people who work in children’s or youth ministry) is talking about. Outdoor ministries is looking for new directions. Our seminaries are stepping directly into the path of these conversations and are offering much research and wisdom. And our churchwide organization is figuring out how to re-invent itself, that it might serve well in this new, missional age.
Are any one of these things either the “cause” or the “cure” for figuring this out? No.
But my sense is that really for the first time in a long time, all of these different organizations are beginning to “paddle in the same direction” in terms of figuring this stuff out.
Some people look at the indicators of these changes in our culture and speak of the end of the church. I don’t think so. I have a much more hopeful view. I don’t believe God is done with the church yet. Though it doesn’t come naturally to the institutional church, I believe that we will change. I believe we will adapt to a shifting world. And I think the key for these changes lies right in our own sandbox. It is, I think, the world of faith formation with the young that is going to lead the change. The culture we inhabit together realizes that the old must pass away. We cannot be afraid to continue asking the questions and seeking God’s call for our ministry. As faith formation reinvents itself, I believe the rest of the church will follow. Really I do.
I believe that someday we’re all going to be able to say “we were there when…” and describe how God’s Holy Spirit moved within the world and within the church.
I am hopeful and excited for the future. And I am grateful to God for what God is up to, and for this community in which questions can be asked, and new directions discovered. Thanks to you, for being a part of it!
Networked in Christ,