Having recently celebrated Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit and the beginnings of the church, it is worth reflecting on the account of Pentecost in Acts 2.
However we understand the reality sitting behind the text, or how the text came to be as it is, we can nevertheless see a broad vision of community. A community that traverses the boundaries that divide us. A community wherein all things are in common. Where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)
This is the church as it could be – or indeed should be. Pentecost prompts us: are we engaging people from across generations and cultures in the important decision making of the Uniting Church? Are we being faithful to the broad vision of community laid out in Acts 2?
I fear in many cases we are not. Younger people often appear disengaged from key decision making. Two thousand years removed and on the other side of the planet, we would do well to read again Peter’s address at Pentecost, taken from the book of Joel:
“your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2.17, cf. Joel 2.28)
To move forward we need to see engaging young people as part of a broader vision of the church community. The solution can never be tokenistic, putting the opinions of young people on a pedestal, but rather celebrating the particular experiences of young people, properly articulated, as part of the rich tapestry the church should be. Young people are valuable not simply because they are young, but because their particular experiences contribute to the life of the church.
Many young people born in Australia to migrant parents, for example, experience mediating between the culture of their heritage, and the culture of their social milieu. These experiences, given voice, are an enormous gift to a church itself coming to terms with how to engage with deep cultural diversity.
Young people unfamiliar with some of the traditions of the Uniting Church can lead to critical examination of why we do things the way we do, and whether we might do them differently. And young people, more likely to find themselves in liminal periods of life, see possibilities and open themselves to new opportunities to learn and grow.
Understanding why we need to engage young people shapes how we go about doing it. Here I don’t suggest a myopic focus on engaging “the youth.” Instead I suggest a broader focus on being a community that values the diverse insights and experiences of all people, and empowers them to give these voice. This requires recognising where we have gone awry, and where the opportunities for moving forward lie.
Too often it seems that participation in decision-making structures is biased towards prior experience and social connections. These are both good things, but they can create barriers for engagement. Not simply for young people, but also for people new to the UCA, or people from non-Anglo congregations, who can struggle to find social spaces to meet those involved in the broader polity of the church. If our task is to embody the broader vision offered by Pentecost then we must be a church that moves beyond these barriers.
We need to expand social connections within the church. We should be talking more with young people, building relationships with people we don’t already know, regularly visiting other congregations in our presbyteries (especially non-Anglo ones!). Cultivating a welcoming culture in Synod conferences, presbytery meetings and other decision-making bodies.
We need to overcome the impasse of inexperience by offering mentoring that introduces how and why we should be involved in the broader polity of the Uniting Church. We must create opportunities for theological study, to resource better reflection on faith. And how faith is illuminated by, and in turn illuminates, lived experience. We should consider creating quotas on decision-making bodies that favour welcoming new participants.
At the core of the task of engaging young people is the task of embodying a broader vision of what the church should be. Not simply lapsing into tokenism, but rather, meaningfully embracing the full diversity of the people of God in the decision making of the church. Laying on everyone the responsibilities that come with these opportunities.
We seek the Spirit of Pentecost that drives us to cross the boundaries that divide us, and empowers the people of God to give voice to the diversity of their lived experience.
On this week’s Friday Forum: what do you think the Uniting Church can do to better engage with young people?
Matthew Julius, 24, is a theology student, barista, and novice preacher in the Banyule Network of Uniting Churches.