This July, high school-aged campers at Camp Blue Diamond’s youth camp had the chance to learn about the Church of the Brethren’s query process at annual conference. Then, campers were asked to split into groups and form questions that they would pose to standing committee and annual conference about Church of the Brethren polity.
The theme at Camp Blue Diamond this summer was Fearless Faith: Courage in Community. The whole unit was on living in the Church, part of a four-year cycle from Inside Out that rotates between units on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Fearless Faith: Courage In Community explores scriptural examples of people finding the courage to grow in their faith through the people around them.
Each day had a subtheme: “Courage to Show Up,” based on the story of Abram; “Courage to Trust,” based on the story of Ruth and Naomi; “Courage to Forgive,” based on the story of Joseph; “Courage to Stand,” based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; “Courage to Change,” based on the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10; and “Courage to Connect,” based on the Great Commission.
It is a timely exercise for young members of the Church of the Brethren to study scriptural examples of living in faith communities. In the Church of the Brethren, we’re grappling with what it means to be a community of believers in the midst of deep disagreement and anxiety over the long-term health and viability of our community. These sorts of questions can only be dealt with if future leaders of the church have a seat at the table today, so it’s vitally important that young people can learn about the processes for affecting change within the COB.
Our chaplain for the week was David Witkovsky, the chaplain at nearby Juniata College. On Thursday, “Courage to Change” day, campers learned about Peter changing his views about Jewish taboos around food when he received a vision from God inviting him to kill and eat foods that were not considered kosher. Later, when Peter was invited to visit Cornelius, a gentile (another taboo), he remembered his dream and met with Cornelius.
Campers were then encouraged to think about ways God might be calling them to change. Then, they were invited to consider how they would like to see the church to change. Finally, David encouraged campers to submit possible questions that they would like to see put forward as queries to standing committee.
The questions that campers submitted centered around three themes:
- How can the church break the stereotype of being hypocritical and discriminatory?
- How can we be less intimidating and more welcoming to those who want to connect with the church?
- How can we better serve local communities?
- How can we move beyond talking about service and actually put service initiatives into action?
- Youth Outreach
- How can we encourage more youth to join the church?
- How can we grow leadership opportunities for young people?
- How can the church do a better job of providing meaningful and accurate Christian education related to topics like sexuality and health?
In exploring how the Church can become more welcoming, the campers asked pointed questions: “How can the church break the stereotype of being hypocritical and discriminatory?” and “How can we be less intimidating and more welcoming to those who want to connect with the church?”
Campers pointed out that these are important question for the Church to consider as it grapples with declining and aging membership. How can the Church hope to bring in new people, when it has a reputation of excluding and discriminating?
Campers also cared deeply about encouraging the Church of the Brethren to continue emphasizing service. They pointed out that a COB congregation ought not to just be a place of spiritual education and fellowship for the community, but should also give to the community. Moreover, they pointed out that requiring service of a church’s members is itself an essential tool of spiritual education.
Around this theme, campers asked, “How can congregations better serve local communities?” More specifically, they asked, “How can congregations move beyond talking about service and actually put this aspect of faith into action.” Campers pointed out that service is often something wrongly reserved solely for young members of the Church. While it’s great to have service trips with the youth groups and work camps for COB youth, shouldn’t churches create service opportunities for members of all ages? Simply put, campers wondered, why is it that things like attendance and tithing are expected of adults, but not service? Shouldn’t service be a central aspect of what it means to live a Christian life?
Finally, campers posed questions about how the church can do more to involve young people. At the most basic level, they asked what the church can do better to bring in young people. How can churches alter worship styles or create programming that appeals to youth?
But youth campers didn’t just want youth to be invited to attend church, they also challenged the Church to do more to create leadership opportunities for young people. How can the Church of the Brethren do a better job of educating young people about its policy-making process? Should the COB do more to put youth and young adults on the Annual Conference ballots for denominational leadership? Shouldn’t committees studying the COB’s future vitality include the voices of its future generations? Should congregations send youth delegates to Annual Conference?
Overall, the youth campers at Camp Blue Diamond were very aware of challenges facing the Church, and they were excited about being invited to consider how the Church needs to change. I noticed that when asked how the Church needs to change, they didn’t ask specific polity questions, such as about same-sex marriage. Instead, they asked broader process-related questions: How can the church be more welcoming? How can the church involve young people in leadership? They didn’t pretend to know all the answers, but they understood the challenges facing the church.
And the campers took the prospect of change in the Church seriously. They wanted to see the church change, but they also knew that change itself can alienate people, if not approached carefully. The last question campers asked was: “How far can change go without undermining the Church of the Brethren’s identity?”
I invite you to join the conversation! What changes would you like to see in the church? How would you answer the questions that the campers at Blue Diamond asked?
Emmett Eldred is a senior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.