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Young people voice their hopes for what they want the church to become

‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast also features Dr. Sarah Leer, a practical theologian and youth worker

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Sara Leer, a practical theologian and youth worker, was the most recent guest on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, the hosts of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” opened their most recent installment with the voices of youth who’d attended a conference at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Catoe asked youth about what they want to see happening in the church today. Among their answers, which can be heard here, were:

  • “There’s a lot in the world that needs to be changed. I think we need to start small and just keep going.”
  • “I want to see people going out and talking face-to-face and not have everything be social media related. I think the church should be going out and connecting with other people.”
  • “I think the church can support members to run for office and take part in the government and be part of policy development and implementation.”
  • “I want the world to be a peaceful, loving place, and for everyone to have what they need. I want churches to be loving and accepting.”
  • “I’d like to see more positivity and see the church as a whole take a bigger part in everyone’s life.”
  • “I want to see the church show up by advocating for LGBTQ+ and marriage rights. They should include those issues in sermons or in bulletins and be open to conversations.”
  • “I’d like to see the church be more involved in the local community and see if they can hold town halls to discuss the issues. The church can take those recommendations to community leaders.”
  • “I would like the church to learn to be better allies to the people of color in our community.”
  • “I want the church to talk more about reality.”
  • “I’d like to see the church become a place where people can not only go to learn about Scripture, but also go to learn about topics that need to be spoken more of.”
  • “It would be nice to see diversity throughout the church.”
  • “I just wish the church would practice radical inclusivity like they say they do.”
  • “I would like my church to do more community service by cleaning up pollution.”
  • “I think the church would be better if we focused more on correcting sin than condemning sin and welcoming those who are different or living a different life than we know. Jesus came to heal the sick.”

After listening to the youths’ comments, Doong and Catoe introduced their guest, Dr. Sarah Leer, a practical theologian and youth worker.

“I appreciate what you’re doing,” Leer told the hosts. “Every time you release a new episode, I think, that’s a really cool person. You’ve racked up an impressive list of guests, and I’m honored to be joining y’all.”

Asked about how to empower youth, Leer said she often uses the term “power sharing” instead, especially following her doctoral work under the supervision of Dr. Christine J. Hong at Columbia Theological Seminary. “If we look at youth 12-18, those youths are looking to share their lived experience, and they want to be truly integrated into the community,” Leer said. “I think we’re often used to integrating youth as an additional person on a committee. What does it mean when you’re actually asking youth to be involved in those inner workings?”

As part of her doctoral studies, she worked with a group of youth “who were my co-leaders,” she said. Using the Participatory Action Research approach, “I would stop and ask them along they way, ‘What do we do here?’ Then you have to listen to them. … That translates to us as church workers and family members and people who hang out with adolescents: You have to listen and then adapt. You have to actually follow their lead, and I think that’s especially true with queer teenagers and queer youth.”

“With this particular method, it’s very humbling as a church worker and as a researcher when they would correct something I did, or they would say, ‘I don’t like that part. Change that part.’ They were very kind about it,” Leer said, “but it’s a whole different lived experience, a whole different generation from mine. I had to listen, follow their lead and then move forward.”

That approach may be a paradigm shift, Leer said, “but it’s something that’s really vital. If we continue the way we have, those of us in church world can see where that’s headed. We really need to listen to Gen Z,” those people born between 1996 and 2010. “I am an elder Millennial [those born between 1980 and 1995] who is ready to support you. I want to support what Gen Z is putting into the world.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

That includes “asking institutions to be authentic and intentional,” she said, “and they’re looking for institutions that are authentic and intentional that will involve them in the process.”

“I think it’s a shift,” she said, “and I hope we get there.”

“I can’t imagine going to middle school right now,” Catoe said later in the conversation. “I think that’s an important posture for faith communities to take — to have those conversations and put financial resources in place to prioritize young people.”

“Part of my call is to create more affirming adults,” Leer told the hosts. “My call is to be collaborative. We have a huge task ahead of us, especially with all the trans bills, with all the youth who are targets. We’ve got to work on this together because it’s lifesaving.”

Listen to other editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here.

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