13 September 2006

Reaching out to Youth

Some months ago, a young man got up in Meeting and talked about his hunger for connection with the adults in his home Meeting. He spoke about his confusion in trying to transition from being a child of the Meeting to becoming an adult Quaker.

He didn't want religious education classes or a formal program designed to turn young Friends into adult Friends. What he wanted was for individual members of the Meeting to reach out to him personally. He wanted them to call him and invite him over for coffee. He wanted them to treat him as a unique person, not just the child of his parents.

I imagine that the adult Friends in his Meeting were watching him fondly, never dreaming that he would welcome such overtures from them. We Quakers hold our youth lightly, not wanting to impose our ideas on them. There's a hesitancy in transmitting our traditions to our youth. We imagine that young folks will be bored by worship and Quaker process and that they have much better things to do with their time than hang out with old Friends.

My recent experiences with young (and not so very young) Friends suggests that we might be selling both Quakerism and our youth short. Many young Friends find value in worship and are eager to become more deeply connected with their Meetings. Yet they hesitate on the borders, intimidated by the very weighty Friends who are scrupulously avoiding trying to push them.

Several young Friends have suggested that they need the adults in their Meetings to reach out to them. While I agree that this is important (and older Friends would do well to continue to reach out to the youth in our Meetings), I think our process works better when the young folk stand up and let the Meeting know that they are ready for more.

When the teens in our Meeting stood up and said that they needed support in making the transition from Quaker children to adult Friends, the Meeting found numerous ways to offer concrete support. Individual Friends made a point of appreciating the teens for standing up. Committees discussed how the Meeting might better serve young Friends, and many Friends made a special effort to invite the teens to join ongoing Meeting activities. One individual spearheaded a proposal that the Meeting sponsor young Friends at Quaker Center programs.

The teen business meetings provide a special opportunity for support. I am touched to see the tender support offered the two teen clerks, not only by adult Friends, but also by other teens.

Older Friends offer young Friends the gift of freedom of conscience. We want our youth to come to us freely, as they are moved by their own small, still voices within. This is a precious gift, and one that is integral to the Quaker witness in every way. A young person can't truly take her place in a Quaker Meeting unless she accepts both this freedom and the responsibility that accompanies it.

Many young Friends don't know what it is that they're being offered. Many seem to be waiting for a sign from their Meeting that the Meeting views them as adults, something the Meeting will only do when they stand up. There are Friends in their 30s and 40s who are still waiting for some rite of passage to mark them as adults in their Meetings.

We can help our youth by reaching out to them, by staying in fellowship with them, and by inviting them to both to Meeting events and to our homes. We can tell them about what we find most precious in Quakerism. We can also tell them why we give them the gifts of freedom and space, and that we are there for them.


Chris M. said...


This is great. I like your exploration of the tensions between "wanting more involvement" and "not wanting to push too hard."

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for opening the door to such an important topic, Heather. I agree that there's a hesitancy in sharing our faith with young Friends, out of concern that we not unduly influence their own discovery of Quakerism and what it means to them.

My guess is that most meetings will make their own choice about whether or how to invite young people to serve on committees. One meeting I know in my area had worked to do so, only to have the participating teens or young adults feel tokenized. (There's been a bit more success when two or more young people have been able to serve on a committee simultaneously.)

As for me, I used to be child-phobic. I feared interacting with pre-verbal kids because I so seldom understood what they were wanting to say--I felt inadequate, so of course I avoided children. (I had no younger siblings when I was growing up; could that account for my child-aversion...?)

So what I am most amazed by, personally, is how engaged I am with the children of the worship group I attend, because we have grown up together.

Well, what I mean is, I've been around them as they've grown up, and they've been around me as I've gotten more comfortable with them, and that has made all the difference.

I'm hoping it will come more naturally, then, for us to talk about Quakerism as they get older and as time goes on.

We have to look for the openings that are presented to us, though, like in your case when a young person stood and made his needs known to the wider body.

I interpret that to mean that the meeting was a safe enough place where that Friend was able to ask for what he wanted. Cool!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Rebecca Sullivan said...

For me being a child of a meeting it is very scary to suddenly feel like I sould be giving ministry. It felt a lot like I was graduating from Junior High by myself. I was now going to look like an adult and be asked about my experiences.

For me it is easier to give ministry at yearly meeting than in my home meeting. I have only given ministry during after thoughts and during business meeting.

I wish there was a better way but I can not think of it.