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Relating to a New Generation

A Letter from Jonathan and Emily Seitz, serving in Taiwan

April 2018

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Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31

Youth have always been a source of energy, renewal, and transformation in the church, and also a source of anxiety, confusion, and fear. Our oldest child, Samuel, just turned 10 years old and so is officially a “tween.” He’s learning to code, is beginning to have his own interests in music, and is exhibiting a newfound independence that often surprises us.

Both Emily and I have done youth-related work over the years. I was a youth director part-time for five years and completed Princeton Theological Seminary’s certificate in youth and theology, and Emily was a children’s librarian and studied children’s and young adult literature.

The issues for youth in both the United States and Taiwan are not all that different. Youth here struggle to work out independence, vocation, and relationships. They also spend a lot of time playing video games and texting with friends. They study hard in school and want a good future, even as the national economy is uncertain. All the trends common in US churches are true here too: there are fewer youth, they often “check out” at some point during high school, and it can be a struggle to merge different styles of worship. Churches in both the US and Taiwan face the same challenges in relating to a new generation — how do we welcome youth into the work and ministry of the church?

Dr. Yu-Hui Chang

Last semester, for the first time I co-taught a course entitled “Youth Ministry and Mission” with a former student and now coworker, Dr. Yu-Hui Chang. Dr. Chang is a committed lay leader who preaches and teaches regularly. She did a degree in Christian Education at Taiwan Theological Seminary, where I teach, before doing a Master of Divinity there and then heading abroad. She was a student of mine when I first came to Taiwan in 2005-2006, and we also knew Dr. Chang when she was in Princeton for a year. She is one of the kindest people I know, and a joy of this semester was discovering that a youth whom she had mentored more than a decade ago is enrolled at our seminary and was taking the course we were teaching. Dr. Chang’s student-turned-seminarian was one of the most energetic, committed students in the class, very much called to youth ministry.

One thing I appreciate about our students is the heart they bring to their work. Many already had a commitment to youth ministry before this class; they had been teachers, scout leaders, youth ministry volunteers, or parents. On weekends, our students fan out to work in dozens of churches, usually in youth and young adult ministry. They lead VBS during the summers and plan mission trips to help alumni pastoring in rural churches. They staff a winter Bible camp for college students. They volunteer in after-school programs and coordinate trips to rural partner churches. Many of them had influential spiritual experiences in their youth at church camps or in college ministries. Our seminary has also now started an annual program to mentor youth and to help in the calling of future pastors.

A student group report leads to much laughter.

Over fifteen weeks, Yu-hui and I covered a mix of topics: youth culture, church programming for youth, family-based approaches to ministry, social media and gaming, spiritual theology, school life, and other topics. In the US, there is a robust set of youth ministry organizations, texts, training seminars, conferences and so on, but in Taiwan growth is slower in these areas. Students here are looking for theological models to help them in their ministry to youth, and borrowing ministry resources is one model. A former seminary classmate and youth ministry expert, Dr. Andrew Root, came to Taiwan in November, and he kindly agreed to meet me and talk while we walked around a local park. Andy Root’s recent book, co-edited with Kenda Dean, has been translated into Chinese, and students were eager to read it. Andy is a professor at Luther Seminary and is a Presbyterian pastor, and he has been a major theological voice in youth ministry circles.

Taiwanese youth face some unique challenges. It was interesting to hear students’ takes on youth life in Taiwan. The life of study and testing is a challenging one, and youth often “drop out” for a period as they take tests for high school or college. Students in my class also told me that in Taiwan they do not see many markers for transitioning from youth to adulthood. Indeed, in Chinese the word often translated as “youth” includes college students and young adults in their 20s or even 30s. In the course, Yu-Hui and I took turns lecturing, and we also had time for discussion. For part of the class we looked at popular “dystopian films” that often describe youth in ominous societies where they are separated into castes and treated as cogs in a larger system, and we looked at a popular TV series about a Taiwanese high school student that was coproduced by HBO. When we talked about sex, several students said that both churches and families tend to fail youth, who instead rely on what they learn in school or from friends.

Kenda Dean and Andrew Root’s “The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry,” newly available in Mandarin.

In addition to teaching a youth ministry course, Emily and I have been asked to help in the planning and implementation of a Vacation Bible School at the small Presbyterian church near our home in Taiwan. I helped out there several years ago by leading a Bible study for youth, and our children attended VBS there one summer. The camp will be held the first week after school lets out for the summer, so we are hoping this will be a wonderful program to help our kids transition to summer and an outreach opportunity for neighborhood children, including many who attend the same school as our own children.

The church has the potential to be a place that both educates and nurtures young people in terms of their faith and daily lives. How can they make sense of following Jesus in a terribly messy world? Church leaders could help them navigate this difficult terrain but need to think theologically about the best ways in which to do so.

We also hope that our work here can help US churches. I am in the process of writing some confirmation “add-ons” that churches could use in confirmation for youth to learn about the connection to the world Church and to cross-cultural mission. My hope is that in time this can be a resource for churches to remind them that we are called, but we are also sent. Being Presbyterian means being part of the global Church. We find our vocation as Christians through our ministry and witness.

As always, we are grateful for your prayers and financial support. Without them, we would not be able to continue in our mission of teaching and learning with our Presbyterian partners in Taiwan.

Jonathan and Emily

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