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A new generation of Presbyterian leaders looks to the church’s future

Group seeks more inclusion and outreach

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

PORTLAND – As the 222nd General Assembly winds down in Portland, four emerging young church leaders gathered to reflect on their time together and evaluate where the church is and where it is going in years to come.

The four come from different parts of the country but share a unified vision on the need for inclusion in shaping the future direction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

“I find it challenging that people who are older than me are always asking my opinion and ideas,” said Colleen Earp, a student from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. “But I also find that they don’t always take the time to listen or follow through on the things they’re asking.”

Timothy Wotring with the Presbytery of New York City loves the “social justice bent”, but adds he’s not finding any solidarity with young people who share these values.

“On the flip side, even if I’m talking with a new friend, I don’t necessarily say I’m working in a church,” said Wotring. “I just talk about social justice values and use those values and issues to get young people engaged.”

Emily Brewer, co-director of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, says young people and adults in the church are often tokenized adding it is hard to talk about multi-generational issues in the church.

“In our society, youth are valued for their physical attributes, but we are not the ones with access to the same economic resources as our elders. We don’t have the access to positions of power,” she said. “The people with power and money are much older and that carries a lot of weight in decision making. It feels some times like people in church want young people around because they value youth at some level but not very deeply.”

Brewer says the church has a tendency to invite people into what the church is doing instead of asking what they have to offer.

Abbi Heimach-Simpson was part of a church plant in Chicago and says it’s a question of relevance.

“Young adults have a vision of justice and hope for a world and church that practices what we read in the scripture,” she said. “If we are not seeing that in the church or if we can’t learn from our mistakes, then the question of relevance really comes up.”

“Often young people are told they are the future of the church and there is great excitement to have us around,” said Earp. “But many of us believe that excitement is only to continue to support the organization as they see fit instead of building it together.”

Regardless, the young leaders are hopeful saying the gospel calls the church to be bold but not necessarily big.

“There are plenty of people in church who are really interested in doing intergenerational work and it’s hard. We offend each other, step on each other’s toes and don’t always understand each other, but we also create deep and lasting relationships,” said Brewer. “I’ve heard the term ‘co-mentorship’ which I really like because it takes away some of the paternalism of an older person providing the knowledge to a younger person. But I see co-mentoring happening in a lot of places.”

While the group of young leaders embraces worship and that time with congregation, they do believe the church needs to do more.

Left to Right: Timothy Wotring, Abbi Heimach-Snipes, Emily Brewer and Colleen Earp look to a future of more hands-on ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Photo by Rick Jones.

Left to Right: Timothy Wotring, Abbi Heimach-Snipes, Emily Brewer and Colleen Earp look to a future of more hands-on ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Photo by Rick Jones.

“I love worship and think it’s an important time for community and for learning. We want to take that and do something so it’s not just a Sunday morning in the pews experience,” said Earp. “We should spend Monday through Saturday out in the world or even Sunday afternoon out in the world, but it shouldn’t just be inside the four walls of the church.”

“Sometimes I don’t want to sit in pews but in a circle of chairs,” said Brewer. “I don’t necessarily want to see one person physically elevated above the rest and bestowing knowledge upon the congregation. Our space should create a more collaborative community.”

Wotring has been a volunteer coordinator for a church soup kitchen for two years and believes outreach ministry can make a difference.

“When I came on as a coordinator, the pastor said I should connect the soup kitchen in the basement of the church to the sanctuary,” he said. “In the past two years, we’ve seen our numbers grow in the pews and more than a third of the congregation is helping out in the soup kitchen or volunteering in different ways in the community.”

When asked where they see the church in 20 years, the group is hopeful.

“I see the church as smaller but stronger,” said Wotring. “I believe it will be more connected and no longer just ruling elders. I think it will be about congregations who are connecting with other congregations.”

Brewer hopes to see more churches in 20 years, intentionally giving up power and privilege in order to take stronger stands on things like gun violence and war. She also hopes churches will take solidarity very seriously.

“Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has connections with the Church of Colombia where our sisters and brothers were threatened and asked for U.S. Presbyterians to accompany them. It was initiated and we showed up and learned from them,” she said. “That’s where I hope to see the church in 20 years, our ministry as one of accompaniment and solidarity.”

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