As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.
We have just now ended Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday. We had time to abstain, reflect, and dress nicely as we ran to church and prepared picnics to celebrate that “He is Risen!” What’s next? I believe preparations for Mother’s Day celebration are coming up on the calendar, right?
This year the Forum for Youth Ministry invites us to focus on the word “declare.” In doing so, I want us to take a look and reflect on our “days after Easter.” What do the days look like? What are we declaring with our words? What are we declaring with our actions? What are we declaring with our outlook? I invite you to make this connection in relationship to our role as leaders and our desire to reach the heart of young people. One of the basic principles of leadership is to be highly aware of one’s actions and perspectives in everyday activities. All that we say and do, inevitably sends a message
We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions. There seems to be a crisis, a disorientation, and sense of hopelessness in every sector of society ranging from the family unit, to the economy, to politics; the church, religion, and spirituality are not exempt. It is not news that a topic often addressed in our youth ministry circles, especially pertaining to mainline Anglo churches, is that young people are “leaving the church.” Experts tell us about the “spiritual but not religious,” the “nones and dones,” and the apparent menu of viable solutions in sight.
We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions.
This is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, sociologist of religion Wuthnow pointed out that the glory days of American approach to religion and spirituality had profoundly shifted from “dwelling” (i.e., institutions, set places of worship) to “seeking” (i.e., open, transient) – and yet, our ministerial and leadership approaches remain mostly unaltered, struggling to reach the heart of youth. In light of this, what are the times declaring? What is required of us as leaders? What do young people need to see and receive?
I want us to pause and imagine the very first Easter and the “days after.” Sadness, hopelessness, disorientation, disbelief, and crisis were looming. Jesus is dead, now what? Where are all the promises he made? The hope he gave us? We see in Luke’s Gospel that early on Easter day, a few women had found out first-hand – “he has risen!” – and they were off to let the apostles and everyone else know the amazing news. Jesus’ words came true! There is hope! He is alive! The tomb is empty!
However, no one believed them, because their words, what they said, seemed like nonsense. Peter was somewhat moved by the news. He was stirred and ran to see for himself the physical evidence tied to this unbelievable story – yet, this was not enough for him. He was still in disbelief and wondering what had happened and what it all meant.
It was later that day that something extraordinary happened, which began to change the scenario and help people see the importance of what was truly taking place in the midst of what seemed to be crisis and hopelessness. Jesus himself came up, and walked along side the two who were on their way to Emmaus. Jesus reached out to them and asked for their account of the situation. As expected, the two travelers described the events taking place in those days as grim, confusing, and unexplainable. Yet, Jesus took the time to listen to them, to give them the space to express their confusion, disappointment, and disbelief. He then proceeded to remind them of what scripture said about the process of the suffering he had to endure before glory – and that he indeed had risen.
The two travelers could feel fire in their hearts as Jesus spoke directly to them. Later that evening, upon seeing Jesus’ actions, it was then that they fully recognized him! In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!
Those present could not deny the fire that was burning in their hearts after being in the presence of the resurrected Jesus, after such a powerful experience and encounter, after being convicted and liberated from their disbelief and hopelessness. It was essential that they disrupt their plans, and return at once to Jerusalem to tell the others! It was impossible to hold the truth back, everyone had to know what had just happened in their lives and hearts – that Jesus had risen!
In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!
Is it so with us today? On these “days after Easter”, are our hearts burning? In these moments after days of spiritual focus, have we seen Jesus act in our midst in such a manner that it is impossible not to recognize him? Are we so full of hope, belief, and the eagerness to tell others the news that Jesus is risen? Is our daily schedule altered by the need to reach out to others? Or are we focused on the next program to prepare, while our burning conviction takes a back seat?
Another basic principle of leadership, is having the ability to see a time of crisis not as failure, but as an opportunity to be seized! As we listen to what the times declare, we look for ways of reaching young people and see that this is the time to keep hope alive and bring about fresh steps that birth something new. This is a time to remember that all systems face challenges, and it is imperative we remember that people matter.
Today all people, are hungry for depth and connection and for leaders who seize opportunity and convey hope! In changing times, in times of crisis for the church, what are the first “days after Easter” declaring to us about where our focus ought to be? About what our leadership needs to reflect? About how our ministries need to be structured and carried on? We can, and we must, rethink our ministerial models and concerns.
Thus, in these “days after Easter,” may our leadership steps be like those of Jesus and the two travelers. Marked by our willingness to accompany young people, space to express their confusion, in-depth exposure to scripture, and a tangible example of a life lived in faith. Young people are hungry to see Jesus is risen, not only in our words, but in our actions. May our encounters with the risen Lord ignite our hearts so that neither us, nor the young people we mentor, can contain the need to let others know about him too! And, may these experiences provide us with the initial stages for our renewed steps within our leadership perspectives and practices, so that our churches and ministries can respond to what the times declare.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez is founder and executive director of New Generation3, an international organization dedicated to training leaders, conducting research, and providing consulting services. She is an ordained minister with over 25 years of ministerial experience, a specialist in multicultural youth development and strategic planning, and will soon conclude her Ph.D. in Leadership. Her dissertation focuses on youth leadership development, and she is also co-authoring a book on Latin@ Youth Ministry. Formerly a high-rise architect, she is now helping build lives by serving as adjunct professor of Youth Ministry, along with exercising leadership roles throughout various non-profit organizations. When she needs to disconnect, she likes to skydive, swim with sharks, and paint murals.