Finding Our Communal Identity

beyond the screenBy Lauren Voyles, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

This book is absolutely phenomenal. Zirschky highlights a problem that the church has been contending with for years: youth feeling left out and unimportant in our churches and disconnected to one another in other arenas. I particularly appreciate the way in which Zirschky points out that technology, social media and apps are a way to connect with youth, rather than naming the devices themselves as the “public enemy number one” of youth gatherings. In addition, Zirschky emphasizes that technology is a way for youth to create community for themselves in a society in which they feel disconnected, and in which they must essentially work to prove themselves worthy of friendship. Zirschky repeatedly asserts that the church must provide koinonia, or communion, that represents radical inclusivity and acceptance to all, so that youth feel that they are worthy of love regardless of their achievement or popularity. He suggests that this can be realized through intergenerational relationships within congregations.

On that note, I resonated with Zirschky’s statement on page 47, where he claims that we have not allotted enough time for youth to simply talk about their lives. I experienced this phenomenon first-hand this year in my internship. I regularly sat in on the youth class, which had one high school student and her four adult teachers (myself included, though I was merely observing). One day, her teachers were late, and she and I were simply sitting on the couches in the “student loft.” Not having access to the lesson for the day, I suggested that we just hang out and talk. Her eyes lit up, and soon into our conversation, her teacher appeared with Scripture in hand to share and discuss. The light in the youth’s eyes quickly vanished as she had to focus on church, which she is growing tired of. In this class, we have returned time and again to the concept of relationship, which is missing from this youth’s Sunday school experiences. I don’t foresee that I will work with youth, but I will use that experience, and its reflection in Zirschky’s book, to prioritize people and relationships as I move forward in ministry. (I needed this relationship with my youth group in middle and high school, which is why I went with my friends to the Disciples of Christ church up the street.)

Within and outside of youth ministry, we must employ Zirschky’s description of communion, which overcomes all societal constraints (80). In order to reach that place, he claims, we must take a good, hard look at ourselves and determine whether or not our individual or communal behavior encourages stratification and hierarchical church culture, so that everyone can be affirmed as part of the body of Christ (81). In my view, this concept is vital not only to youth ministry, but to every part of church life, including missions, social justice, etc. His description of the Trinity’s perichoresis is a beautiful example of what the church universal should be striving for: to share ourselves with others as the divine selves share their essences with one another. The hope is that this can be actualized if we will allow the Holy Spirit to work (see the incredible story of Daisy in the last few chapters!). If we focus on the radical oneness with God that we share as the body of Christ, the fractured networks youth use to convince others to like them will fall away. Technology is not the issue, but it is a symptom of a larger disease of non-relationality that the church must address. And, moreover, we must allow youth to actually participate in church life, including committees. Only then will communion be realized! (I had no idea that youth could serve as elders in the PC(USA) until college. My Disciples friends were all serving communion in high school! I was super jealous.)

Again, this book is incredible because Zirschky re-focuses the issue of communication to the congregation, not youth as a group. By reaching out and fostering relationships, congregations can truly live into the promises they make to babies (or other people!) when they are baptized: “We’ll guide you through this thing called life and Christianity.” And that is where we will find our communal identity in the radical, free love of God in Christ. This book gives me hope.

May it be so, for all of us.

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