Students in my courses are familiar with one of my core convictions: “age is a social construction.”
There is no universal experience of being 5, 15, or 50. While genetics shape our developmental trajectory with contributions from our environment, the meanings and values attached to age vary from one cultural context to another.
Being a middle-class, Caucasian, able-bodied sixteen-year-old U.S. citizen in Cincinnati today is an exceedingly different experience of being human than being a sixteen-year-old Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip, or a sixteen-year-old Honduran detained at the U.S. border as an undocumented immigrant.
And then there is baptism. As baptized Christians, we are marked as Christ’s own forever and equipped for mission regardless of our age or social location.
We are all disciples on the Way. The Episcopal Youth Event (EYE 2014) was a powerful reminder of what is possible if we choose to live as if we actually believe our baptismal theology.
I experienced four full days with over 1100 Episcopalians (including the Presiding Bishop and 41 of her housemates, and the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings) and no one mentioned that our denomination is shrinking, struggling, dying. I guess none of us got that memo.
In fact, I heard and witnessed extraordinary stories of hope, redemption, and transformation. We were invited not only to pray freely but also to share our favorite Bible verses and to tell one another why they matter to us. How “un-Episcopalian” is that?!
We worshiped in a paperless world—not only saving trees but lifting our eyes to see Christ in our neighbors, and lifting our voices to make spontaneous, joyful noise!
At EYE, age was irrelevant and wisdom prevailed – wisdom earned by faithful living into the Five Marks of Mission, summarized throughout the event in the mnemonic: TELL, TEACH, TEND, TRANSFORM, and TREASURE.
The Rev. Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest, Vanderbilt University chaplain, and founder of Magdalene, residential communities of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. She inspired us all to understand Christian mission as the responsibility to build a movement, “a drop of oil traveling across the world to restore hope.”
For the skeptics, Becca demonstrates that #loveheals and is good business, raising millions of dollars annually for the organizations she runs.
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Missional Vitality in the Diocese of Long Island, turned age upside down and challenged young people to practice “reverse mentoring” of church leadership. The Church needs their gifts and skills now, not tomorrow or next year, if we are to live into our radical mission as disciples of Jesus Christ!
The Reign of God is near. As North American Christians we are created in the image and likeness of God, and our identity is formed in baptism, yet we live in a dominant culture that reveres youth (because it denies death) and segregates ages. As such, it is no wonder the Episcopal Church has mandated a triennial gathering of “youth.”
Yet, with God’s help, once gathered the EYE 2014 community shed our culturally-constructed bad habits of patronizing and confining teenagers, and freely (re)claimed our agelessness as children of God, joining our unique gifts with God’s mission.
As one bold fifteen-year-old said in a workshop I facilitated, “I am a Christian because I choose to follow Jesus, not because you [grown-ups] think I should.”
Thank you to Bronwyn Skov and the EYE 2014 Mission Planning Team for building a Church that takes the gifts of [young] people seriously, no matter their age.
Lisa Kimball (@kimball_lisa) is director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and professor of Christian formation and congregational development at Virginia Theological Seminary.