November 2008: How will you keep the next generation of UUs engaged?
"How will you keep the next generation of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) engaged? Give an example of how you've listened to and responded to the next generation."
Response from Laurel Hallman
Interesting you should ask, because the babies that were born just as I arrived at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas 21 years ago are now on their own—working, serving in the Armed Forces, or finishing up their college years. This is what I've learned from them. It takes:
- Authentic adults—Anybody who spends time with our children and youth is encouraged to talk with
them directly and authentically, answering their questions openly. One of our
young adults said to me recently, "You never talked down to us." I considered
that high praise.
- Covenanted community—When our 9th graders are presented to the congregation by their parents after a
year of study and preparation, they have written their credo (knowing it is
always a 'work in progress') done
the fundraising necessary to fund their heritage trip to Boston, have met with me for open
conversation, and have completed a service project. On that celebrative Sunday their parents name the qualities of
spirit their son or daughter will bring into our covenanted community. We
welcome them as adults into our congregation. They also may sign our
Membership Book, should they choose to do so. The party which is the same weekend as their recognition, is a family
occasion, with Grandmothers and Grandfathers, cousins and friends from school as
well as teachers, ministers, parents and youth group leaders, creating a UU
version of a group Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration. It's a grand occasion with lots
of group dancing.
- Experience of Depth—We believe it is important for our children and young people to know their UU religion is as powerful, transformative and life shaping as any religion they encounter 'on the street.' I pray with them, use religious language with them, teach them within the worship service that religious stories, art, and ritual are metaphors of deep truth which can have deep meaning in their lives and empower them to be engaged and effective agents of change in their world.
I've learned it's not easy to leave home these days, whether it is one's childhood home or church home. When our High School seniors 'bridge out' of their Youth Group at church they ritually leave their friends, walk across the front of the sanctuary and are greeted by adult members of our congregation who have been Unitarian Universalists all their lives. The ritual teaches more than we can say about our hopes for them.
The UUA pilot project "A Summer of Service and Spirituality" (in 2006) gave young people from congregations of all sizes a deeper experience of well mentored spirituality and service away from home, just when they need it most. My work to make this program possible on a larger scale is part of my vision for the continuing engagement of our next generation—the ones being born today.
Response from Peter Morales
Every Sunday children in my congregation bring in money to support the education of poor Mayan girls in Guatemala—girls whose families survived the massacres of indigenous people in the 1980s and whose families were forced off their ancestral lands. They know the stories of these girls; they know their names and have seen their photographs. As they get older, our youth raise funds every year for the Heifer Project. We are trying to teach our youth that religion is something they live, something that requires commitment and even a little sacrifice. We are trying to engage our youth at an emotional, experiential, and spiritual level as well as a cognitive level. We still have a long way to go.
Probably no religious group loses more of its youth than we do. I find this deeply troubling. This is a personal issue for me. My own daughter, now a
25 year old young adult, has been through our youth program. I am delighted that she is an active UU today, but I have watched too many of her friends drift away.
As I listen to youth and young adults who have grown up in our movement, I realize that we have done an excellent job of teaching them to respect other religious traditions. We have not done a very good job of engaging them emotionally and spiritually. We do not do a very good job of incorporating youth and young adults into the life of our churches. And, perhaps most importantly, we do not provide an outlet for the passionate idealism of young people. Deep commitment and strong bonds come from powerful experiences.
A colleague of mine once commented that we UU's talk about youth empowerment, but practice youth abandonment. That is painful to hear, but there is too much truth in that statement. We need to admit that the problem of engaging our youth is deep in the religious culture of our congregations. The changes we need to make are at the local level. I do not believe that there is a single clever programmatic magic bullet that will come from Boston. The great challenge is to change our religious culture.
As president, I will consistently cast a vision of religious life that multigenerational, passionate, committed and experiential. I will encourage the develop of programs that give young people the chance to use their energy and idealism. I will explore partnerships with other organizations.
For example, there is so much more we could do in partnership with the UUSC. I will also make sure we listen to young people. Most of the innovative ideas will come from them.
In sum, the changes we need to make are not at headquarters. We need to change our culture. That will take all of us.
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Last updated on Friday, July 22, 2011.