Coming Alongside Youth on New Pathways of Being Church
In this conversation, pastor and justice-seeker Sandra Maria Van Opstal talks Elizabeth Tamez Méndez about how the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial reckoning provided an opportunity for churches to pivot and reset practices and spaces that allow youth to ask hard questions and explore a Biblical understanding of worship, justice, and collective flourishing in Christ.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] So welcome to this session on Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. This is a new series hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am Dr. Elizabeth Tamez Méndez, founder and executive director of New Generation3 and longtime collaborator with the CICW. Today, Rev. Sandra Van Opstal is joining us for conversation in this next video in the series. Sandra, thank you for being our guest. We're so happy to have you here.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:00:45] It is awesome to be with you guys.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:48] So good to talk to you again. I know we haven't had a chance to connect in a while, so I'm so happy for this opportunity. As you know, the CICW has been working on gathering insights around this theme. We want to come together and learn about community worship practices in different contexts, especially those that encourage intergenerational worship spaces and relationships. In today's conversation, we want to focus on practices that include and empower youth. Sandra, would you please share with us a bit about your context and the work that you're doing? We're really eager to get to know more about it.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:01:25] It's great to be with you all. . . . I have been around CICW for a long time in different capacities. My main passion in ministry is the intersection of worship, faith practices, and justice. I spent most of my early ministry years with college students, so thus the focus on youth. But I keep returning to that same age group. I think there's something so amazing and special about intersecting with someone between the seasons of “I don't have a dime to my name” and “I have a mortgage.” Somewhere in between there you have so much freedom and creativity about how you might live life, how you might pursue your vocation, how you might leverage your voice and your privilege for those who are oftentimes overlooked and marginalized in society. And so there's something that happens there between “I have an allowance” and “I have a mortgage,” and I keep kind of reverting back to that stage. But in that journey I worked with a college ministry for a long time, and I did about a decade in urban ministry and community development looking at church-based, faith-based, asset-based development in the city of Chicago. And then after seminary I transitioned into a full-time role as the executive pastor of a community called Grace and Peace, which is a part of the Christian Reformed Church. And then I moved out of that role during COVID to cofound an organization called Chasing Justice, and we could talk more about that if you want. And so now I'm actually focused again on . . . from an intergenerational, multiethnic, multiclass, multigenerational church back to focused on youth and young adults between the ages of 18 and 30.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:03:31] Thank you so much, Sandra, and you're a very accomplished author. We're so happy that you have been able to expand your ministry in that direction as well. What is the website for Chasing Justice?
Sandra Van Opstal [00:03:42] The website is chasingjustice.com. And you can find us on [Instagram], which is actually where we do most of our work because this generation spends most of its time on social media. So most of our work is on Instagram, and the handle there is @chasingjustice_. But it has an underscore at the end because a teenage rock band, I think, has the @chasingjustice handle, so, @chasingjustice_. And that's actually where most of our content is curated and prepared for and prepped for is on social media. So thus the way to kind of connect with and speak to the next generation. So we're there on Instagram. And the focus of Chasing Justice . . . My co-founder, Mark Reddy, and I were doing some work primarily with an organization that does refugee resettlement and contracting for a very large national conference around the topic of justice. And we said, you know, we really think this journey needs to be more than a conference. We think it needs to be a community of people that are asking questions about what it looks like to live a lifestyle of justice in the daily. And so we think that there's a passion that continues to grow with each generation, from young millennials to Gen Z, around this question of what does it mean to rebuild a just world. And so we want to have this movement that helps them do that, and we consider ourselves kind of the grandparents, you know, in our 40s, we're the grandparents of that.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:05:15] I know! Now we're the old ones!
Sandra Van Opstal [00:05:19] We’re the old ones. So it's like an old lady and all of her young coachees, mentees, that are working on the content. But it's been an amazing—we're not quite yet into our two years. We started during the pandemic as a way to help people process everything that was happening in the world and what it meant to still have faith in Jesus and do the work of the church and still use your voice and elevate it when it seems the church is sometimes silent.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:05:52] Thank you for pointing that out, because this helps us to get to know you better and to understand the spaces where you work and you relate to youth, but also precisely these shifts in ethos and in the way that we work, we, you and I, are in that generation in the middle where we're not so much the young ones, we're not so much the olders, and we were introduced to all this technology. And so now we're having to shift our focus into these more colloquial spaces where it's social media, Instagram, TikTok, that's where people are really going. . . .
Sandra Van Opstal [00:06:38] Las tías; we’re the aunties!
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:06:39] That’s a good term; I like that!
Sandra Van Opstal [00:06:41] The aunties of justice and faith.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:06:44] We are the cool tías! For those of you who don't speak Spanish, that means aunts. I think we will now name ourselves as the cool aunts of this new generation of leaders. And so that's part of what we want to continue to focus on conversations in this series, those five values. How do we incorporate all these changes and the new shifts and the perspectives and the different generations, the ones who are still struggling even with technology and the ones who say, Well, that's all I know. And how do we bring these intergenerational relationships, and how do we make the spaces for the theological questions? Because as you pointed out, Sandra, this new generation is very much interested in having the conversations that for others used to be taboo. They want them front and center. They want the real answers of “What does the Bible say about this? How can it inform what I do theologically?” Because all the information (they’re) getting is from the outside, and the conversation is large, and the conversation is loud, and the conversation is in the forefront. However, they're not really having a lot of spaces that are helping them bring these two worlds together: all this conversation about justice, about equality, about racial reconciliation, but then also, what does the Bible have to say about that? What is my community of faith? How do I live it out day to day and just give youth the agency and the space for theological questions? So if you can share with us more about the work that you're doing in that regard?
Sandra Van Opstal [00:08:25] A lot of it is just listening. I mean, I think it is very important. I was talking to one of our younger advisory members on what early on would have been our board as we formed, and I was like, “What organizations do your friends follow on social media to engage their questions of faith and justice and worship? What do they follow? What are some of those organizations?” She turned to me and she was like, “Oh, we don't follow organizations. We follow people.” So people don't follow, for example, the organization Transformation Church; they follow Mike Todd (and if you guys don’t know who he is, you should look him up). So they're following personalities; they're following celebrities. Whether we like it or not, whether we think it's helpful or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that that's what they[re doing. So the question becomes, how do you capture their attention organizationally as an institution like the church, the local church or nonprofit organization or an after-school program or whatever you're working with? How do you capture their attention when what they are not looking for is an institution to follow? And I wonder, a lot of times with Gen Z—you tell me what you think; this is my proposal—I think that because Gen Z would have been raised by Gen X, I think that we passed on an anti-institutional seed. . . . My kids are super young. They're only seven. But most people my age have children that are in their teens and are going off to college. Mine just turned seven. They just turned seven this month, this past month. So I often think about that. . . . If the mark of the Gen X was anti-institutional, then we raised our children to be suspicious of systems and organizations. And coupled on top of that with the reality that “good, polite Christians” don't talk about things like money or sex or politics, and they want to talk about politics because that's exactly what they're interested in. They're interested in how the government, how our social order, is affecting those who are most disenfranchised. They're asking questions about conflict and about institutions like policing. And they're asking all these hard [questions]. And it's not just people of color, it's all. All of our kids are asking those questions like, Do our schools work for us? Who do they center, and who do they disenfranchise? And our churches are like, “Let's just talk about the Bible” without having any connection with what biblical values would have to say to our social engagement. And so I think that's what's happening. [They have a] sense that they they want to follow Jesus and they they want to have a life of deep, deep connection and worship to God. And at the same time, they want their lives to be meaningful. They want to make a difference. They see what's happening in the world and they want to know that their center, the things that they have made their center, their spiritual family, has answers for what's happening in the world. And the reality is that they're oftentimes just shushed in church. And so if the church isn't going to provide that, then somebody has to provide that, and somebody has to coach the church on how to provide that—both those things: working with churches and institutions as well as creating a space where young people can ask those questions and ask them loudly. So we've done a lot of listening because we might create something and then the younger people in our group will be like, “I don't . . . it's not really . . . my friends don't need that. That's not what they're asking.” And I'm like, “OK, well, then what do you want?” And then they're like, “We don't know what we want, but we don't want that.” So we have to back up a lot and ask questions. I think that's what's hard about . . . I mean, you tell me, you're the expert on youth. What's hard about working with youth is they know what they don't want, y'all; you know that's true. They have the three C's going on for them: they're critiquing, . . . they’re conflictual, they're criticizing. They're doing all those things but they're not providing solutions. And part of it is they don't have the kind of wisdom they need to provide solutions. But that doesn't mean . . . that they're not right on what they're critiquing. That also doesn't mean that they don't have some ideas. So they may be right about what they're critiquing. They may have some ideas, and they have a lot of creativity and innovation, but they oftentimes lack the bruises, the wisdom of life, the bruises of life. And so the hope is that we can create spaces in, for example, a community like Chasing Justice, where I'm outnumbered by them. So I'm just one auntie in a room full of really passionate, innovative critiquers. And so I just have to hold that space with them and say, OK, we know what we don't want. We know what's wrong. We know that there's something in our being that tells us those things aren't true. And there's probably something in our spiritual formation that has led us here. But we can't actually articulate why that is, so let me help you articulate why that is. What is a biblical understanding of worship and justice? Let's walk through that together. What is a biblical understanding of how we ought to engage socially and politically for those who are disenfranchised and vulnerable in our world? What has the church done historically? Can we learn from that? And then how do we talk to people when we disagree with them? How might you bring an idea to your congregation or to your community without coming in with a machine gun full of fire.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:14:59] Canceling each other out.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:15:02] So that's kind of what we're trying to do is create a space. Listen.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:15:10] And that's so complex, right? Because these are paradigms that perhaps we haven't seen modeled before as adults. This is a whole new way of seeing what church looks like, what possibilities look like, what our way of conducting ourselves as leaders, as ministers, as people in the congregation who love them. And it's just a whole different way of looking at what our role [is] and also their needs. I think that's part of the beauty of what God is giving us at this time. But like you mentioned, we have young people who are engaged. . . . We had a generation that was introduced to technology and it was very disengaged and were consuming it to the extremes. And you could see kids—you still see that, right?—kids who were for days locked up in their room, and now with social media, they're having this chance to . . . OK, well, there's certain topics that I'm really interested in. I don't completely understand them, but who's going to come alongside of me? Because there's also that shift in society where now the generations are more and more disconnected and isolated. And so your kids are spending time with kids, and the voices that are influencing them, like you mentioned, are people their own age. And so as well-meaning as they are and as innovative, and new ideas that they may have and new itches, they also need those who come alongside of them to share with them, “Look, this is what happened in the past. This is how it was. This is how we got here. This is how these systems work.” And then with that information, that historical information with the understanding of what happened in the past, then we're able to come together and have those conversations and collaborations. But that can be intimidating for some leaders because they have not seen that modeled, first of all. And then if they're seeing spaces for it, they're trying to figure out how do we do it? How do we implement it so that we can really have these spaces of conversation and leaders seeing ourselves and just anyone in the congregation as playing that role of scaffolding mentoring, the ones that come alongside of them and continue also the biblical model of passing on the baton of faith. People are not supposed to just have faith because they're an individual out there and there's this inspiration and then that's it. It was designed from the beginning that the older ones were supposed to pass it down to the younger ones. And so when those conversations, those spaces are not happening, we're losing what was meant to be, and especially at this time what we're pointing out is crucial because they have so many deep questions. And who's going to help them answer these influencers out there? I see them all the time; they have millions of followers. The things they're saying, a lot of times we know, OK, yeah, they're 30 years old. They're well-meaning, but they still haven't been able to have a chance to have mentors that help them make the bigger connections. They can actually continue the conversation in a way that is going to help bring some solutions and not just complain about it.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:18:42] And I think what is hard about that is that, like you said, the models for mentorship and discipleship and formation that we've been given just don't work with this community, with this generation. They just don't work. And part of it is, it's not that they don't want to be mentored or that they don't want to be coached. They absolutely do. But they want for you to come alongside of them. And so I think that's the difference. For example, I have a cohort in Chasing Justice where I work primarily with—there's two cohorts. One is with Black, Indigenous, and people of color executive leaders, so these would be people . . . 30 to 40, they're in that age group, mostly around 35, that have national leadership and . . . they're running Black campus ministries for somebody; they're running their own social media/influencing organization that publishes the thoughts of Black Christian leaders. They have their graphics designer and they have a million followers that are following all their graphics of what they say about their faith and justice in the world and goodness. And they're like, “I don't know what I'm doing. Like, I literally don't know. I got here, and I'm working cross-culturally, and I'm working in an institution that is intergenerational, and I need help.” And the other one is younger women of color between the ages of 25 and 30. And again, most of these are social media influencers and artists and people that have a lot of—they put up one meme and all of a sudden they have 80,000 people following them. Only 9,000 people follow me, and I've been doing this for a long time. But now they have all this and they're like, “I don't know what to say. I don't even have a biblical understanding of what they're asking me.” So part of that is to say, “God has called you to this. The door has opened for a reason. So how do we support the work that you're doing?” versus “How can I tell you what you should be doing? You should do it this way. You should do it that way.” I think that's what they don't want. They have this idea. They're going with their idea, and they want help accomplishing the vision that they saw. And I feel like if scripture tells us that our young men and women will dream dreams and have visions, then it's our responsibility to give them a space to dream those dreams and have those visions that are given by God and for us to support them versus us telling them no, discipleship happens this way, worship happens this way, preaching happens this way, building an institution happens this way. And I think that in our communities, whether it's asserted or not, some of it's kind of indirect but manipulative and some of it's very direct, but either way, a lot of times people don't feel they have the freedom. And so I believe that institutions, leaders, and churches that come alongside of their young people and say, What keeps you up at night? What are your friends talking about? And then, How do we talk about the good news of Jesus and what it looks like to rebuild and be a part of that transformation of the world? How do we talk about that to that need? So for me, I was trained in community development and community activism. I know that the hallmark of that movement is a one-on-one listening session. You listen to the deepest desires of the person in the community, and then you speak to that desire they have and that passion they have, And you move them, you coach them in that. I think there are young people in our pews and in our seats and in our institutions and in our afterschool programs that are going to lead the church. And the question is, are we going to create spaces for them to actually lead us, or are they going to take their gifts somewhere else? Because they will do it. I can tell they're like, “I'm going to do this thing!”
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:23:13] And they get it done because they have resources in that sense with the technology and with the platforms that you don't have to wait for somebody anymore to open the door for you because you just set up your own account and there you are. You're live to anyone and everyone who will listen.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:23:32] My son wants to have a YouTube channel. He said that he wants to have a YouTube channel to teach kids how to swim. He's got one [idea] to teach kids how to swim and one that's called Chasing Justice Kids, where kids can talk about chasing justice. And he's got ideas. He's been on my Instagram. He's preaching about Advent. He's seven! Can you imagine when he's 14, 16?
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:23:55] Exactly. And that's part of all this generational shift, right? And then we want to continue models that were so useful in the past, and we thank God for them, and they helped shape you and I, otherwise we would not be here being in these intersections and having these conversations. But now, if things continue to shift, . . . just in the past ten years, it's amazing how much change has happened. It was not this fast in the past. And so now people really want to have these spaces and that we come alongside of them and resource them with the knowledge and the experience and in the understanding that they're not going to get through technology or an influencer or through a podcast, or they really want to have those people who come alongside of them and help nurture that dream and that vision that God has given them and see it as that part of our legacy of faith and of leadership to say, “How beautiful that God has called you to do something that maybe I don't understand, maybe I've never seen it before. Maybe it creates a lot of noise inside of me. But so be it, because it's not for me.” We're not trying to reach the 60-year-olds; we're trying to reach this generation that speaks in a different way, looks for something different. And I always encourage leaders in the church because I know we went through a phase where the main conversation was “Youth are leaving the church!” . . . [But] if we keep encouraging people, it's the most spiritually hungry generation; they really want to know. There's this hunger inside of me. There's this wrestling. I want to have spaces where we can really connect with this. And sometimes the church needs to happen in the laundromat because that's the only place where I'm going to be able to have the space to think about these things, to have these conversations because I have to wait for the washing machine for an hour anyway. But when we feel that those things don’t have space, those are the only way you can find out about faith and about knowledge of the Bible is by coming to a Bible study that happens in this space at this time, and then we want to make them fit into what we conceived for them. And they’re telling us “Well, sorry, no. I'm hungry. I wanted . . . [but] we can't fit these two worlds.” So how do we continue to help ourselves get the soil ready to say, OK, what's the end goal? To have another Bible study? Or to really create the spaces, like you're saying, about empowering people for theological questions and being able to put these conversations that they're hearing out there together with what the Bible says, so thank you, Sandra, for encouraging us to say, OK, what is it that we can do in order to do that? So what are some of the multiple pathways that you have seen different congregations or organizations doing this in order to bring these two needs together? Anything that was unique or surprising that you've seen out there? . . . Anything else you want to touch upon?
Sandra Van Opstal [00:27:44] Sadly, I don't think that the church—well, let’s speak specifically over the last eighteen months. I think there was a great opportunity for the church to pivot and ask the question of what does it mean for us to exist in this space in this time? And so I saw churches . . . on the west side of Chicago, for example, I saw so many churches do a great job of pivoting their energy away from Sunday service and toward walking alongside of the community in a very tangible, needed, spiritual, physical needs. Because our physical needs are not aspiritual; they are spiritual. They were walking alongside of parents who were trying to figure out, How do I do this remote learning thing? We don't have internet; we don't have a computer. How do we get computers? We saw this all over the news: kids at a parking lot, like a Taco Bell or McDonald's or Starbucks parking lot, doing their homework there because they don't have internet at home. And so these were mothers and fathers and young people who came alongside of their neighbors and both in a formal and systematized way as well as an informal way to make sure that they had computers, to make sure that they had internet, to make sure that they understood what was happening, to tutor, to provide support. There were organizations and churches in our community that did change their smaller food pantry into a full-blown food bank that organized volunteers and organized people from the community and kept people fed during the time. It was great. I heard someone say, “We didn't have a pandemic shutdown. We just had poor people delivering groceries to rich people who stayed at home. And so I just found that to be, that's exactly my experience as someone who is overeducated and is, of means and can do my work from home from this computer right here. Many of my neighbors and community members and congregants could not do that. And so they were the ones working at our grocery stores, out driving the delivery trucks, at the corner Home Depot when all of us were doing construction on our homes. They were the day laborers for those programs and projects. Our churches in our community just said that we need to figure out how to work together. So multiple churches working together and church networks working together to make sure that our community was fed. Did we have a Sunday service? Yes, we did. But did most of our hours and energy go into doing beautiful recordings? No, they didn’t, because that just wasn't the point of church. That wasn't the point of church. So if you're a young person who is asking, “What is happening in our world?” . . . We have a global health crisis. We have a racial reckoning. We have scared Black mothers who are afraid to let their children outside for fear of what might happen to them. We have our Asian brothers and sisters who are experiencing a dramatic increase in anti-Asian hate crime. And all of these young people are like, “What does Jesus have to say about that? What does the church have to say about that?” And churches are worried about recording something that looks beautiful online. So we just moved our same idolatry from the in-person space to the virtual space. And we never changed. We never accepted that invitation. I would say the American church, especially the majority American church, I didn't see that happen. This is not what the research supports. It didn't. It doesn't support that. Our small immigrant churches, our urban churches, our multiethnic churches, our young churches, our church plants—they were able to pivot. And so it's not just that the church was doing great, it was that young people who saw that, they were like, Oh, I want to come here. So all of a sudden we have a whole new congregation of young people in our church. [People would ask,] “What did you guys do? What did you guys do?” I said, “Well, if you think that lights and smoke are going to try to convince a young person that this is a cool place to be, you’re totally on the wrong track. What they want to know is, are you authentically being present where you are? Do you have an answer for the loneliness that I feel? Because this is the most connected and yet the most lonely generation; that's what the research shows. Do you have an answer for the crisis and the poverty and the suffering in the world? And of course, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible has an answer to that. And it's supposed to be us!
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:32:43] And actually practice it and embody it, and they don't need to be invited to church. They immediately come because they're attracted to that; they're like, “Finally somebody is doing something,” especially during the pandemic, because they were bored to tears with being locked up, and they're like, “Hey, let me go, help. Let me go help.” I saw here in the community center next door, the moment they started giving out food, all the young people were there, and they had to figure out ways of keeping everyone safe. But they were like, “I’ll come help!” They didn’t even have to go ask them because they were like, “Oh, this is really cool. This community is actually doing something, and I want to be part of it. I want to be part of it.” But it seemed like sometimes it was these other social systems that said, Hey, let's jump into these day-to-day needs, [but] not all of us got the message that this is your chance as a church.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:33:44] Yeah, and I think we can often misunderstand too, because they also made a lot of TikTok videos during the pandemic. But just because they made TikTok videos does not mean they weren't doing other things. So I learned from them because I was like, “What do you use TikTok for? What do we use reels for? Because we're all on social media. Should we do a TikTok on this?” “No, no. We don't want any like churchy, Christian-y, TikToks. We don't want that. It's not what we want. TikTok is for having fun, and making fun of life, and for dancing. And, you know, if we want that, then we'll go over to Stories.” . . . So they are really teaching me what it is that you use each medium for. And it was interesting because I was like, Oh, people see them as selfish, just superficial—and yes, I mean, the research also shows that they want to be famous and significant more than any other generation, including young millennials. That shift came back, like, I want to be seen.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:34:45] That's what's valuable: thousands of followers, and if you are the influencer that everybody wants to see, we're teaching them that that's the goal of life, right? They’re not hearing another message anywhere else.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:35:03] They’re not. But that doesn't mean that they weren't also at the food pantry or at the local food bank or tutoring young children or helping people with their internet or or asking hard questions about what's happening to migrants on the border during this time, and is there something we can do, raising money with their friends alongside of a cause. You know, I think that we underestimated maybe the biggest gift that was there because in that season especially, the people least affected were people that were healthy and young. So I think that we churches and community organizations and nonprofits that pivoted well and broke from tradition and sought out innovative ways to do things differently—those are the places I have hope will continue to do that as we rebuild. If all that happened in 2020 and 2021, if a health crisis and a racial reckoning and an attack on our White House, if all those things that happened in our country that caused incredible polarization and incredible division did not invite the church to ask itself, “What are we doing with our time and energy? What are we doing with our gifts?”—if that didn't invite your space to do that, then I can tell you right now you're not poised for this next generation. You're not poised for them. Because they absolutely care. Christians who grew up in the church who were in your youth groups, they're the ones that are saying, “What do we do about what's happening in our world, and can somebody please lead us? I have an idea. Can someone help me do this?” And we're like, “Oh, that's great, but our church is doing this. So why don't you come and join us here and you can set up chairs.” That's not what they want.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:37:15] . . . And I think, like you were pointing out to leaders, to organizations, to churches that found themselves not being able to pivot that this is not then a call to say, “Well, how were you not able to do this?”, but to recognize it and say, “OK, you know what? There was something within us that didn't give us the space for this. Great. Let's go look for it. Let's go look for the resources for the people that can come alongside of us and help us to be able to create these imagination of new models of ministry with youth, with intergenerations.” And that's where Chasing Justice and New Generation3 and others who can come alongside of you and have those spaces of conversation to say, “OK, so what worked? What didn't work?” Because none of us are perfect—no institution and no church, right? There were some who were ready just because they had the resources and even the examples of others. And there's others who this is helpful to them to say, “Oh, OK, guess what? We’ve got to hustle and get ready for how do we start creating these spaces.” So I think that's also part of the beauty when we're able to notice that we have some blind spots that we can work on, and that we can grow and that we can create a different story moving forward of what can happen. Because I saw, like you were mentioning, there's whole aspects of institutions, right? And they're so large, and their processes require a lot more time and a lot more protocols. And so that makes it harder to pivot, to change, to react, to give answers. And both the congregations and the denominations and even the bigger institutions that we saw that were able to respond were also the ones that saw themselves in that space of “Great, now we can collaborate; we can come and we can join forces because my institution or my space may not have everything that we need in order to pivot this way, but there is someone else that can,” and then they can come and support them. The ones that didn't do great were the ones who became insular, who were scared and were trying to do the self-preservation, like, “We don't know what's going to happen. So we’ve got to make sure that we take care of resources, and we just kind of hide them because we don't know what's happening next.” And so those kinds of things help us to see who we are and where we want to be, and who we bring alongside to help us in those blind spots and [?] spaces.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:40:06] And I think too, like what you've been saying, in a distinctly Christian space, as people who carry a message of grace and renewal, I think that it's beyond assessing our blind spots. It's an invitation, really, to repentance. That's what I think I see from this generation: they're not only looking for us to—well, let me just say I think they're looking for repentance. I think they're looking for people to say, “We did this wrongly.” Not just like, “Oh, sorry, we missed it. We'll do better next time.” And you tell me—this is a question I've had on my mind for probably nine months now—why are Christians finding it so hard and so difficult to repent when it's the very message that we preach? We are not perfect; actually, we're bent naturally toward a selfishness, so therefore Jesus Christ invites us to follow him. And therefore in following him and being in our Christian communities, we walk toward a more collective liberation and healing, a collective flourishing, a collective freedom that we find in Christ and in the fact that the Spirit regenerates and renews and changes us. And so what we did and what we understood and what we knew about what it meant to follow Jesus in the beginning of our walk with the Lord is not what we understand and know now because we're constantly being renewed by, transformed by the renewing of our mind as Romans 12 says. So why is it so hard then, particularly in North American Christianity, for North Americans to come to the table and say, “You know what? We've made this about something that it's not about: security, safety, individualism, money. And it's not about that. That's not what the gospel is about. The gospel is about freedom and liberty for those who are disenfranchised. It's about those who don't know or don't believe because of our testimony, believing as we repent. And so I just find myself in these last two years saying—it's literally what John the Baptist said when he started his ministry: repent. Repent. And so I just want to say, I think this generation is a mirror to us that we're uncomfortable with. That's what I think is happening. All the backlash and the—I think they're putting up a mirror and saying, “Repent!” We need to hear our parents say, “We've done this wrong.” Our grandparents, our Christian institutions and—Christian colleges? Oh my gosh, y'all. If you're listening, they're not going to sit down. They're going to keep coming to the table until you change. They're not accepting it because they know they've been handed a spiritual legacy that puts repentance at the center of freedom. And so you can't have a revival if you don't have repentance. So we want to see revival—great. Then let's have some repentance. And I think this generation . . . [is] not putting up with it. They're like, “We need to see repentance. We need to see you say you're wrong. We need to hear you say you've made this about something that is not. And when we do hear that and you're specific about it, then we will come.” And I just think that's freedom for us. I think that's freedom for us as old aunties, that we would be called to say, “Maybe we were complicit in some ways that we need to change. Maybe we did make faith about something it wasn't. Maybe it was more about what we believed than how we lived. Maybe we did that. Maybe we need to change.” And so I just believe that the scriptures show us that in every generation a charism is given, a gift is given to that generation. And I think that this generation, for all that we could say—What did you guys know at 14? What did you guys do at 18? What did I know at 24? Nothing! . . . But it didn't mean that God didn't put a fire in me. And that same fire that God put in me at 8 years old, my mom says, this is why I see you doing what you're doing today, because God showed me that when you were 8, and now you’re mid-40s and you're still doing that. And I hope when I'm 90, I'm still doing it. So I just think it's an invitation for us that I believe is an invitation to freedom. We have to ask ourselves intergenerationally, what do we need to repent of to build trust with this next generation? And what sweet communion could that make for others to enter into?
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:45:30] And we have, like you mention, a lot of opportunities to reset, to come to terms with what has been. And I think what you're pointing out [is] that act of repentance which leads to action and change, because I've also seen some that come to that point but then don’t follow through with it. It's good that you recognize that you did something that was not quite reflecting God's purposes and call for us, but now what? . . . Because then the same things continue. And maybe there's a shift here and there, but there's really not getting to the root of things. And those are very hard things to do. They're challenging. They're calling us to something that is not natural to us, as you pointed out. I always remind leaders that the Bible mentions over and over again in Philippians and so many places that that is precisely why we have been given the glory, the power of God to do these things are not natural to us. And as you were pointing out, that's part of the challenge for those of us who have had the spaces of Christianity at a global perspective, because then we come to this society and we're able to see, like any other society, it's infiltrated by the society, by the culture, by the way of doing things. And it does call to a counter-cultural way of being, of thinking, of acting, of reacting. And young people are not always having the opportunity to see that difference. We were in a conference last week for four days, and that was one of the things that young leaders kept bringing over and over again. They're working in different institutions and congregations, and they kept mentioning, “We're not seeing leaders who are giving us the example of creating safe spaces, of creating organizational cultures that are healthy, that are open and welcoming. And they're hungry for that! They're like, “Who's going to show us how to do these things? You're talking about how important and vital this is in order for us to do work in ministry, but we're not seeing those examples.” And so there's such a growing space for us as leaders. And I think like you're pointing out, it’s that time to say, “We did it wrong. And what are we going to do now? What comes next?”
Sandra Van Opstal [00:48:13] It makes me think of my mom. A lot of times I would be like—you guys can tell I’m excitable, so something would happen, and I’d say, “That’s wrong! We need to change that! We need to change the world!” you know? And she would turn to me and say—my mom's from Colombia, and my father was from India, and they came to this country when they were young and they adapted to a new culture. So half the time they're just trying to figure out, like, Is this a cultural thing? They were trying to to handle us as young children, like, What are we doing here?—and she would turn to me and she would say, “You know, mija, we probably didn't get it all right. We probably made some mistakes and probably we should have taught you differently.” Around issues of race, for example, she would say, “We probably didn't teach you right. We probably said and did things that didn't teach you right. And as we came into a new country and we reflected [on] the ways people taught us about the space we were in, we picked up some things and said some things that now we know are wrong.” And to hear my parents—my dad never said that; he's Argentine, they never apologize. But he just changed, which is what true repentance is. True repentance is change. So he actually just changed without the words, and I think I saw my parents move toward anti-racism. I saw my parents move toward generosity beyond their own Latino community. I saw my parents move toward a lot of things in the world that I . . . All of us, my siblings, we all work in different fields, but kind of socially engaged in that way. She’s like, “I'm just very proud that you all care about things that I just didn't know to care about.” And we tell her like, “Well, you raised us with a faith in God and a belief in Jesus that required us to care for the marginalized. It got shaped differently in each of us, but it's because you raised us this way. And I think, therefore, intergenerational relationships, aunties, grandparents; reading about your history, like understanding the history of the Latino Church, for example, for me; for those who are African American or Asian American, learning about the history of your church and how it has made a difference and been salt and light and a witness in the spaces that you are—those are all very important things in forming our identity spiritually, that we have what Yolanda Pierce called a “spiritual genealogy.” The other day someone told me—I was interviewing with someone and they're like, “You know, I like to think about it like, we should each have a spiritual autobiography.” And it was an American white male who said this. And I was like, That's very telling, because that feels very American Christianity to me, like “my personal story.” What Yolanda Pierce, who’s a black author, says is that we should have a spiritual genealogy which tells us the roots of our faith. So not present thinking, but past thinking. And not just your own grandmother, own aunt or your own descendants, but the spiritual influences in those. And so I wrote mine, . . . and I put all my people there, people that have influenced me spiritually in my community and made me who I am so that I don't feel alone as still a relatively . . . young person in many spaces I go to. It's a weird space to be in your 40s. But I'm not alone. I'm not the first. I'm not brilliant—people have been saying this for a long time!—and I belong to a community and a collective intergenerational community of people that have been seeking to find this intersection of worship, faith, and justice. I think that encourages us as leaders to help our own youth do the same thing, for us to say, “Maybe we didn't do this the right way all the time. I recognize that we were wrong in X, Y, and Z. And so we want to do this work together. How can we look back to see what legacy we have? How can we look forward and work forward asking better questions?” One of the practices is just to ask better questions. What do you stay awake at night thinking about? What do you and your friends talk about at the lunch table? What's on your minds? They talk about serious things: identity, loneliness, faith, fear, and then how do we create faith formation spaces that actually speak to their issues and not to the ones we want to speak to. So maybe we should all be like my mom; I'm pretty sure we should all be like my mom. But I see them happening in small pockets and I see them happening in communities where they know they can't do it themselves. That's where I see those kind of places forming.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:53:53] Thank you for pointing that out, because I think that helps to spark the imagination and the conversations of those who come and listen to this video and try to wrestle with these concepts. . . . And we just want to continue to encourage people to create those spaces for listening, for going deeper, for repentance, for looking at ourselves and our organizations and our leadership and saying, “Where can the Holy Spirit and the power of God be able to help me transform and look at things in a different way?” We have this privilege of the spiritual legacy that we're able to pass on to the other generations, and we want to encourage people in that ministry to keep going with our flaws and all. But how do we come together so that more and more of the efforts that we're putting out there will be really helpful in tapping into their needs?
Thank you so much, Sandra, for this engaging conversation. I know that we could go on and we can do another video because you brought up a lot, and I was like, “Now we've got to talk about this legacy of our spirituality, what we learn from our parents. You and I, we share that; it was because of our parents and how they guided us. I always tell people my mom was praying for me before I was born. And so all these things that shaped us and things that they saw in us as kids, that they're being reflected right now precisely because of that power of the family. And so we hope that we're going to continue our conversations and be able to share with the faith community and encourage them. We've learned so much from you today; thank you so much for this time, Sandra. What a gift.
Sandra Van Opstal [00:55:53] Thanks for being with me and taking all my crazy ideas. I have an idea of how to create more questions!
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:56:05] . . . Those who would like to come into the space of conversation to create more questions, we're happy to do that. . . . If you're watching this video, thank you for joining us for the session on Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. Please use the space under this video to continue the conversation, to prompt some questions so that we're able to have this as a space of collaboration and not just you sitting down there watching a video, because we are really praying that these conversations will inspire and encourage you in your efforts in ministry and reaching the next generation. It's not easy. There are a lot of questions. There are a lot of mistakes that we make, but we know that God will continue to honor those who, with their open heart and transparency, really want to invest in the next generation of leaders for the church. Please join us for the next video in the series, and we really want to hear from you. Thank you, Sandra.