What will the church look like in five years? What about in 10, 15, 20 or even 50? This is the question on many people’s minds and hearts these days. When I ponder this question, I look to young adults. I do this not because “they are the future of the church.” That is cliché. I look to young adults because they see the world differently than I do and are asking interesting questions. They have a pulse on some new ways of imagining church and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this world. Many times, they can already see the church that is emerging as it pokes out of its old skin into something new.
So how are these young adults formed and prepared to lead us into what is next? ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) is one way. As I accompany the young adults in their transformative journeys in the YAGM – Southern Africa program, I regularly witness leader formation happening. But it is so woven into the participant’s experiences that they might not even see it. And in fact, not all of it looks like what any of us might expect as leader formation.
Here’s what I see. I see young adults leaving their worlds of comfort, eager for a new adventure and something that alters them. They are eager to serve. They are eager to learn. They are given training and orientation. But the formation really begins as they are plunged into a radically different context. They are sent to communities of our companion church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa. They are hosted by these communities and taken into their worlds. They are immersed in a whole new culture and a new way of seeing the world.
They walk with these communities and experience their worship life and their faith life. They become part of the Youth League or the Young Adult League. They serve with the Women’s Prayer League that reaches out to care for the vulnerable. They attend Men’s Prayer League rallies and experience a fervent faith life that includes staying up late at night to gather and worship as a community. They live into communities and walk with them. They begin to see through new lenses.
As they live in their communities, they begin to see marginalization anew. They no longer hear about “the poor” or some other abstract generalization. They are living with people who are marginalized.
They are living in communities where they can witness a loaf of bread as the meal, grannies standing in line for the government pension check so a whole family can eat for the month, etc. They witness people who make a life with very few resources.
They live on their own simple, living stipend, making their own economic choices. They witness how the choices of their home country impact the members of their South African communities. They witness the racially marginalized. They begin to see the long-standing impact of racial segregation. They see the intentional discrimination of some races. They see how long the wounds last.
At the same time, they see an amazing spirit of resiliency and resourcefulness. They hear Jesus’ words anew. They understand in new and powerful ways the biblical call to care for the least and to serve others. And because of all of this, they start to ask new and deep questions.
During a YAGM year, the participants are given opportunities to serve. But frankly, the deeper lesson is in follower-ship. They spend their year as followers, as learners, as supporters, as accompaniers. When these young adults come to South Africa, it is rarely the service experience they expect.
They come expecting to have something to give — their skills, their passion, their time. They often expect to bring some answers or solutions. They certainly expect that they will somehow make things better. But being a YAGM is actually an experience in helplessness. They quickly see that their communities know their situations far better than they ever could.
They struggle to face the reality that being helpful often means not doing things for others. They must support the community’s wisdom and agency. This takes trust and restraint. It takes belief that God is at work in this place. It takes listening and learning. It is the act of holding back from their well-intentioned impulses to jump in and “help” that might be the single most radical thing that is happening to them in their experiences in South Africa and to their formation as leaders.
In all of this and all that happens in the YAGM year, these young people are granted an amazing opportunity to be immersed in another culture and to be shaped and formed. Their communities give them these gifts. And while they are in South Africa, they try to make sense of what is happening to them so that they can put it to use in their home contexts, to be leaders in the church and the world, for the sake of what God is doing in the world.