Intergenerational Relationships in the Worshiping Community
In this conversation, pastor Ahnna Cho Park invites church communities to consider a Biblical concept of honor that embraces the imago Dei, breaks down cultural hierarchies between youth and adults, and welcomes all on a journey of intergenerational friendships and worship practices.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] Welcome to the 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, executive director of New Generation3 and longtime collaborator with the CICW. Today, Rev. Ahnna Cho Park is joining us for conversation in this next video in the series. Ahnna, thank you for being our guest. We're so happy to have you here.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:00:44] Thank you for having me.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:46] We really appreciate the time that you set aside, and 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. Ahnna, would you please share with us a bit about your context and your work? We are really eager to get to know more about it.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:01:20] Yes. Thank you, Elizabeth. And hello, everyone, it's wonderful to meet you. My name is Ahnna Cho Park. I am a minister of the word with the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and currently I am academic coordinator for the Korean Studies Program, which is a brand new program, at Denver Seminary. So I've been in Denver for a very long time, and I'm very grateful to be filling this very important role of raising up the next generation of Korean church leaders. But previously, I have been serving as education director at a local Korean church. So at Korean Christian Church, which is in Denver, I have been serving there as children's pastor, as education director, working with students of all ages. And just to tell you a little bit about myself, I grew up in Saudi Arabia as a missionary kid. I moved to the United States when I was 12 years old and my father, being a pastor, planted a church. So I have that experience of being a church planter as a teenager. And I grew up in the church serving as a children's leader, youth leader, then youth pastor. I love the youth. I have also mentored and tutored a lot of youth over the course of my life. So I'm very thrilled to be part of this conversation today.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:02:47] Thank you so much, Ahnna, for sharing about that. And you were sharing with me that you were there at the Korean church for several years, right?
Ahnna Cho Park [00:02:55] That's right. So I've been at the Korean church for five and a half years. I actually resigned just at the end of June. I'm actually still helping out there.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:03:05] I know, it's usually one of those things that's hard because you move on to the new position, but then there's always that opportunity, and I'm very thankful for ministers were able to do this, to just move in different spaces and interconnect ministries. So thank you for sharing about that. That helps to frame for our listeners where God has been leading you and using you and how you have been able to relate to the new generations and just create those spaces of work. And so thank you for sharing about that.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:03:40] Absolutely.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:03:42] Now, before we move forward, we want to let our viewers know that to frame our conversations in this series, we have chosen five values to shape this project on corporate worship and models of ministry with youth. These values are youth agency, spaces for theological questions, the role of the family, sparking intergenerational relationships, and designing multiple pathways of ministry with youth. Ahnna, how has your role as ordained minister of the Christian Reformed Church and your work in the church and then your background as a missionary kid and being in these multicultural spaces—most certainly you have been shaped by different cultures and worldviews, and then we share that we're pastor’s kids. So I always share with people in our context that that means that we're part of the pastoral team since childhood. We don't have that type of separation, at least not in our Latina churches. Everybody is part of the workforce. So I'm so eager to hear about how all of these experiences and exposure have been shaping your way of interacting with the new generations and intergenerational relationships.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:05:08] Yeah, . . . we're talking about some big concepts, and just to start with—can we start with youth agency? So, you know, like just being part of different cultures, I think it's so fascinating how each culture views youth. I am Korean-American, and the two cultures are reflected in our local church as well. We have a Korean-speaking congregation and an English-speaking congregation that come together to be one church, and all of their children fit into one education ministry in our context. And I find it fascinating because everyone has a different understanding of what “youth” is. Who are the youth? What are they supposed to be like? Is this a descriptive term or is it a prescriptive term? I think in both cultures, even though their views of youth may be a little bit different, I think what they have in common is that they don't expect much from them. I think in the American culture, I think that the popular adage is “Oh, they're just youth. Youth will be youth.” And I think there's this idea of they're not at a place where they can fully express their faith or intellect or whatnot. And I see that. I think in the Korean context, the dynamics are a little different, but still, because the Korean culture is deeply—undergirding the Korean culture is the Confucian ideas of hierarchy and social order. And in that context, age is incredibly important in that culture. And so youth, just because of their age, are already seen as not of the same importance or significance; their weight in the community is a lot less. It's really just because of their age. And again, depending on the culture you're part of, it may be a different story, but I think the overarching trend we see is we don't expect great faith from our youth anymore. And one thing that I am so thankful that our church did, actually five and a half years ago, before I came, was that our former youth pastor reset the tone of the youth ministry and started to call our youth ministry the 412 ministry after 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (NIV). And this has become the theme verse and the mission and the vision of the youth ministry. And what's really amazing is that over the course of my ministry here, I saw our students truly live into this value. We don't talk about it openly, but when I really sit down and think about it, it is a very countercultural statement for both Americans and especially Koreans, in my view, to say, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you're young.” And I saw that this is just brilliant. The youth students I saw truly lived up to this expectation set for them. So when I first started as children's pastor and then as education director at the church, the youth pastor took on a different position and moved out of state. And the more a youth pastor is loved, the harder it is to part ways, especially for the youth. But then over the past five and a half years, I saw our youth students live into this value. It's been a really challenging five and a half years because they had two new youth pastors and two separate interim periods in just a matter of five years. So it was a lot of changes, lots of transitions, and that's really hard when you're a youth. But in that, I saw them really step into the role of leadership on their own with some adult guidance, with some supervision and permission to lead. The students who were able to lead and able to guide and encourage really stepped into that role. So some of the high schoolers led youth ministry; they planned their own retreats. And then the older classmen took it upon themselves to mentor and encourage younger classmen. And when I saw that, I felt so blessed. I think youth really are able to grow to the extent of the expectations that we put on them. And I would like to say, expect more from the youth. Expect more.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:10:34] Thank you. You've touched upon a very important point, this shift in our paradigm to, Who are young people in our communities and our congregations? What's our definition? I don't know that there's a lot of leaders or communities who have been intentional to sit down and really reflect upon that. What is it that in our congregation, in our community, we mean by that? What are some of our implicit biases that we have been transmitting and perpetrating without consciously playing into it and perhaps not even noticing what that has cost? We see it all the time. We're constantly working in different communities of different ethnocultural backgrounds; in the Latina church, we have the same way of approaching young people in what we expect of them. I think what you pointed out, having the expectation and the permission to have the agency . . . in the Latina church we're constantly also going back and forth because depending on which generation it is, it goes between “You are responsible for many roles because we certainly will ask you to be a coparent for your younger siblings, to be a caretaker for your grandparents and the older generation, to have jobs that help with the income for the family, and to have all these responsibilities, to be the translator for the family,” right? But then if you come to church, you have no voice, no agency, no space, because you're too young. Once you're an adult, then there will be a space for you. There's always this contradiction between the expectations and the roles they have to play at home and then the expectations and roles that they have an opportunity to contribute toward a church. I think you pointed that out. It’s part of the work that we can do as we're creating and imagining multiple models of ministry with youth, who are they to us, and what is it that we're saying or not saying? And then we see the American culture that is saying, Oh, we'll just go, go play and have fun, right? And have sports and school and be young. We don't expect much of you here at church. And as you said, very importantly, we don't expect great faith from our youth. So I don't know if you've seen any other pointers in the differences culturally.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:13:46] Thank you for sharing about your experience. That's fascinating that those Latino cultural dynamics play into how the youth are viewed inside and outside of church. I think I see a similar but different dynamic playing out in the Korean American culture as well. Absolutely. I think our Korean culture just values education so much. It's just a cultural thing. If you're Korean, if you grew up with Korean parents, you were asked to excel academically. B’s are not acceptable because you're Asian. And so that is absolutely true. And a lot of times what I see parents do is I've seen some parents actually suppress the use of faith expressions because they need to prioritize their academics. So when the students want to express genuine faith and sacrifice because of their faith, sometimes parents are not as supportive of that: “You can do that when you're adults. When you grow up and when you go to college and when you have a good job, you can do that later.” I've seen that happen. But to go back to your question about how do we define “youth,” a thought that I've been thinking about a lot is that when we say “youth,” it's actually a relative term. When we say a group of people are youth, we're calling them that because they are not adults. So we're defining “youth” as basically non-adults, and maybe non-babies and non-children, but basically, we're really categorizing them as one certain group. There's some value in that categorization, but also a lot of dangers. I think a lot of adults look upon the youth as “You're not ready for the real world. You are still in training.” That's sort of the mindset. But also I think we tend to devalue youths’ role in the church as members of our body, perhaps because they're not adults yet. And I think that has very deep theological issues there because it's down to the question of what makes you a worthy member of the body of Christ. I think what we're saying when we devalue youth involvement, I think we're implicitly admitting that somehow we tie a person's worth with their age, perhaps their intellect, or maybe their net worth—the things that we align with adulthood that the youth don't have. And I don't think it's hard to notice that those are not biblical values. God does not say intellect is your spiritual maturity. Intellect is not the right measure of it, nor is age, nor is net worth, I would say, faith is, and obedience stemming from that faith. And I love the verse Ephesians 4:13. I love that verse because it tells us that Jesus Christ has a much bigger goal for us than to see us into adulthood. Because here in this verse, the apostle writes that Jesus Christ’s School for our church is that we will be built up and become mature believers attaining to the fullness of Christ and to attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. So that really, I think, it just kind of deconstructs that false binary of youth and adult, because all of us are training to become not adults, but to the full measure of Christ. Our ultimate maturity is when we become more Christlike, when we attain that fullness of Christ, which will probably happen on the other side of eternity. But that means that we are all training to that end goal. . . . Adulthood is not a terminal stage of life, especially. It's not true even for everyone. . . . There's retirement, there's the life of the elderly that is probably undervalued in our society, too, but spiritually speaking, our end goal is to be citizens of heaven. Our end goal is fullness of Christlikeness. And if we are honest, nobody's there. Even the apostle Paul said he's not there. Adulthood does not equal spiritual maturity. And when we think of it in that term, we have a lot more in common with the youth than we think. All of us are under the guidance of our heavenly Father. All of us are sons and daughters in training. None of us have the perfect maturity that is demanded or asked or that is encouraged of us. We're all on that same journey together. And I think if we keep that in mind, then we can imagine youth ministry in a much different way.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:19:29] And that just broadens . . . We understand there's different perspectives, because we have a wide audience, and the theological interpretations and traditions may be different, but I always try to encourage people . . . We don't find anywhere in scripture that the work of the Holy Spirit is limited to a certain age gap. And so we don't know how God will be using that person, because they are part of the body of Christ, and there is not a prerequisite that you need to be this age in order to be part of it. And so we certainly saw in our congregation in Texas, time and time again, we were learning from the youth. They were integrated in a way that they were exercising their leadership and their spiritual gifts. Another thing is, spiritual gifts don't come by age. And so they were having opportunities to do that, and they called us out many times on doing the things we said we wanted to do or how we wanted to reflect God's character, and at times it wasn't happening because we're all human and fail, but the beauty then of creating those spaces and flows in ministry where we're able to see, OK, where is God leading, and can we get to the point where we free ourselves of the labels and the limitations that we have accepted as if they were true? And then I try to remind people the term “teenager” or “adolescent” did not exist only a few decades ago, and it's a Western definition, and certainly Jesus and the disciples were teenagers, early adults, and we don't have that in our imagination thanks to all the graphic design with the beards and the old man walking around. And then also what Jesus said over and over again, it is the children; the children are the ones who the kingdom belongs to. The children are the ones who are my priority. The children are the ones who really have a place at the table of honor. And sometimes we see it's hard for Christians and therefore congregations to be countercultural because we live in this world, and we're influenced by it, and it just seems that sometimes we start to lose our biblical values and we start living by the values of the world around us and the culture around us that informs us, which has a lot of weight. It has great things to enrich us, but at the same time can be very tempting to start living values that are not our own and to follow that trend. I think we share a lot of that with several Asian communities, within the Latino community, that honor for elders is very important. And so that's like a double-edged sword, because it's certainly a very strong value that has allowed the intergenerational connections. It's also been used to limit what God wants to do through a person of less age. You were pointing out about this. It's like these dynamics, even with the other generations. I was working over the summer with a group that that’s their job: they tried to create new ways of thinking about people in retirement because it has changed drastically. It used to be you retired, and maybe you have five or ten years, and then that’s it; you’re called to be with the Lord. And now people are living like twenty-five years, thirty years after retirement. And nobody prepared us for this. What is this stage in life? And how do I reimagine what my legacy can be and what my purpose is after society wants to tell me you're no longer useful because you don't produce revenue as you did once. What have you seen in your church and relationship to these intergenerational relationships, and have you been able to navigate these realities of our crosscultural, but also our age differences and the different intergenerational relationships that have happened in your context?
Ahnna Cho Park [00:24:37] Yeah, absolutely. And just to go back to a point you touched upon, which has to do with that honor and shame dynamic. I do want to point out that in the Asian cultures, and this may be an implicit, a subconscious value that people have, but there is a huge notion of a limited honor, that honor is limited within a community. And so if we want to honor the elderly, then by definition, the younger ones do not get that honor. Someone I know who's more familiar with this compared that to the whole yin and yang philosophy. The whole yin and yang philosophy is that the good and the evil, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, they counterbalance each other to create this whole. And I think a lot of people are fascinated by that philosophy, and it has affected a lot of Western cultures, too. But I think in some ways, the way it plays out is that the more honor we bestow upon a certain group, it is taken from the other. And a very well-known Confucian teaching would say, it would compare, it would divide the population into two: the sky and the earth. And it will say the authority is the sky. You are the earth. The men are the sky. Women are the earth. The elderly are the sky. The younger ones are the earth. So it's a very prominent philosophy, and we have to reflect on it biblically. As believers, as Christians, we have to see what the scripture has to say about that. And I really believe that the honor that the Bible talks about is the dignity of each and every person that comes from the fact that we are created in God's image. All of us, male and female, are created in the image of God. And that demands respect and dignity right now, not when someone's an adult, not when they attain certain value or a certain position. The imago Dei demands respect now, and when God looks down at us, our soul’s not worth more because we live longer, or because we have more intellect, or all of those things, because God made us in his image. And the same is true for our youth. The same is true for our children. And another important point is that dignity, that God-driven honor does not have a cap. God's honor that he bestows upon us is infinite. So it's not like a zero-sum game; it's the creation mandate. It's saying go be fruitful and multiply, and God's original plan with what that was for his glory to fill the earth with no limit. That was the goal. And with the re-creation with Jesus, the second Adam, and with the church, I believe that is still the goal. The goal is for God's glory to fill the earth through his children, who are his saints, who are the church. So I think we need to just kind of take a step back from our cultural familiarity and be able to reflect on it with the light of the scripture. And I think that would help us to understand how we need to incorporate youth in our churches. And to go back to that point of how we've been doing intergenerational: that's a very good question. At our church, we had great success having this intergenerational ministry within the education ministry. So it's a success, but with its limitations. So within the education ministry, I was able to allow that intergenerational aspect to flourish. And I think, like you said, in the Latino church, the older ones are seen as the older brothers and sisters, as mentors, and we have the same thing. We have the same kind of attitude toward the younger. So using that, with that, I was able to help the youth see themselves as leaders to these younger students. One memory that I have that just really warmed my heart is our last Vacation Bible School. So even though it was in the middle of the pandemic, we had a VBS and we had a group of youth students to apply as youth interns. And through this internship process, they were to volunteer in this children's program, summer program. And I really wanted the youth to see themselves as leaders, not just workforce, not free labor. So that's why we did that whole internship process.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:30:08] Thank you for pointing that out, because that's another important topic today to catch up on: the free labor!
Ahnna Cho Park [00:30:16] No, they're not, right. And so we brought them in, and I had them go through this Leadership 101 training. I prayed through that, because I wanted these young people to know that I see them as leaders now, not when they're ten years older, not after they get their driver's license. Now. You are called as leaders, so we're going to have this leadership training. And the really awesome thing is, I really believe what I'm saying when I say they are leaders, but I think they saw that they're given real responsibilities and real honor and real respect as co-laborers in this program, and they absolutely lived up to that and more. It was incredible to see them minister to the young students with that. It almost makes me cry just thinking back to that experience. And then also, I was able to pull our college students in because we still have that really good relationship. And so the college students helped to lead the youth with certain gifts like worship and skits and drama and whatnot, and they were able to produce—because it was COVID, we had to limit, make sure we're being safe, so we prerecorded a lot of the sessions, and the college students helped the youth be part of that. So it was just such an incredible experience, and I was being very intentional about that. So with our VBS students who are graduating and going into youth group, I made a point to say, “That's going to be you next year. Next year, you will be in a position of leadership, and you will be able to lead the young people.” And you can see that the joy and the expectation rising in their hearts, and that's something I want to keep doing, keep working in our churches. So that was the wonderful praise story. But then, again, with the adults, it's been hard because of the Asian, Korean mindset that adulthood is like the terminal stage of human life, which is not a biblical idea, but I think a lot of adults see themselves as the adults. And so there have been less interactions there than I would have hoped. So I would love for that to change in a lot of the churches, because I know that this is a shared issue. It's not specific to the Korean church. It's true in the American church; it’s true, it sounds like, in the Latino church, too.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:33:05] Yes. I think, again, we have adopted the view that society and the world points out to us. And it’s not ill-meaning; we point that out in past conversations that this segregation of the ages came from a response to better serve people in their needs. It used to be that the schoolhouse was everyone, no matter what age or what academic level you were, at one schoolhouse. Then they started segregating into ages. And that certainly brings a lot of advancement with laws for child labor to protect people from these things. And this is something that was good and well-meaning, then later on, unfortunately, became something that started hurting us because we forgot about the other side. I think as humans, that's a tendency we have. We go in one direction and we forget a lot about that balance, the yin yang. I think that's something that is going to be very useful for our Asian communities and congregations and leaders to start redefining that, because that is the essence of this philosophy: that it has to be imbalanced. And when we see that there's areas where we have not been faithful to that, that definitely starts to create a lot of the struggles that we're seeing. And how can we go back to those biblical principles? And how can we encourage one another? Because it certainly takes time for people to change their perceptions and their way of doing things and their perceived roles of who is supposed to do what and when. And in our Latino community, it sometimes gets, depending on which generation it is, if it's first-generation Latinos or fifth-generation that are more acculturated or just the whole gamut, we always struggle with that because for us, youth is anyone who's not married. So you can be forty-five, you're not married, you're still a young person. And so I think it opens a lot of possibilities for us to imagine new ways of creating relationships and community in these spaces where it's going to be uncomfortable at first, and it may not turn out exactly like we wanted. But you pointed out this a few times: when we provide spaces of opportunities and expectation for people, people slowly—sometimes youth pastors, because they have that plasticity to adjust—start to say, OK, so things can be approached from a different perspective. We can have different types of relationships that do not need to be exclusive [with] here are the young people here, the adults here, the olders, that's a whole other universe of their own. But how do we continue to nurture these spaces? I think you pointed out that sometimes young people are able to set the example for the rest of us because perhaps in other settings high school students and college students would not be speaking to each other, would not be having friendships and relationships. Wow. Our congregations provide those very unique spaces, and the same as we continue to expand the gamut of the intergenerational connections. And what have you seen as you are putting these things into action in your context? And what have you observed from the role of the family? How have parents reacted to this? What is some of their feedback that they give you?
Ahnna Cho Park [00:37:06] You know, I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old, so I haven't had an opportunity to parent a teenager yet, but God have mercy upon them. It's rough. I think it's challenging because starting as early as fifth grade, fourth grade now, actually, children are starting to understand who they are as an individual, and that's when the biggest influencers in their life are no longer the parents. It's their peers, their teachers, maybe their youth pastor. So I think a lot of parents of youth need a lot of grace and compassion, because many of them struggle with this changing dynamic too, because all of a sudden their teenage son is not talking to them anymore, or their daughter is like a completely different person. And so there's a lot of anxiety and insecurity on the parents’ part too. I think for that reason, the youth pastor has a very important role. I think the youth ministry does provide a safe and a special place for the youth to explore their identities. They're like adults on training wheels. So it's a great place for them to explore that. But we don't want to minimize or negate the role of the parents, either. The parents are still very influential, probably the biggest influencers in the students’ lives, whether they want to admit that or not. And so we have to take that into account. And I think what I've seen that worked so wonderfully is that the youth pastor would do good to find allies in parents who are doing it right. I think in every congregation you can find some parents who are just walking their teenage child with grace and love and truth, but with the right amount of authority, biblically grounded. And when you spot a parent like that, I think it's important to partner with them and to converse with them for ideas and also bring them into more leadership roles even within youth ministry. Maybe they can be a guest speaker at one time or another. Another value of that is you also have an opportunity to model for other parents what biblical, grace-filled parenting looks like at that stage of life. Depending on the situation of the youth pastor, sometimes a youth pastor is an older person who had kids of their own, but other times they are singles or young adults. Many different people fill that youth pastor role, youth leader role. And I think it's important to take the parents into consideration, because again, we are one church, one body, and God has given us different gifts so that everyone can be built up to the fullness of Christ. And parents are definitely part of that. So that's just my tip for the youth pastor who is thinking about how to involve parents and families more. I think youth present a very unique learning curve for parents and families. I feel like almost every parent can admit that it's so easy to idolize their kids. It's so easy to fall into that trap of they are the center of your life. And I think God challenges that in every one of them. I think as parents of youth, we have to understand that God is working in us as he's also working in them. And it may have to do with letting go of that control, maybe surrendering the child to the Lord, admitting that before they’re our kids, they're yours, Lord. I mean, I sympathize with them. I fear when I think about how my kids are going to be in a couple of years. . . . You want to do the best for your kids. You want to sort of micromanage, and you want to give them all the boundaries and tell them who you can hang out with or who you can't. But I think the wise thing to do is just go to the Lord with all those prayers. And you know, I guess my other encouragement for the parents would be to expect more from them. Expect more from them. It's so easy to parent from a place of fear because there is a lot of fear in the world. A lot. But I think God invites us to parent from a place of faith. And I think that's going to be a real battle and a learning curve. But I think God invites both the parent and the child to enter into that together, and he has given his Spirit to all of us so that we can trust that God can take care of me and my child. That would be a huge growth point if the parent can get to that point of entrusting the kid to the Lord.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:42:53] I think especially for parents, like you pointed out, we’re always encouraging parents because we know they have such a tough job, not just being a parent, but when you're a parent of a teenager who’s trying to find their identity and their purpose and where they belong, and they're going through all the hormonal changes, and then one time they're sweet and then like three minutes later, they're an ogre . . . so it's very tough. I think, as you pointed out, that there's still struggles, and then if you add to that mix the struggle of being a parent [in] cross-cultural situations . . . because you grew up with a certain way; your parents taught you this is what it looks like. So those are your models of parenting. And then you come to this society and your kid is getting a completely different message of what a parent is supposed to do. It's just those clashing constant messages. We're always talking about that in our context because we are hearing from the American society “Let them go; let them do what they want” in comparison to more of the Latino parenting style, which is, “I know where you are, what you're doing . . .”
Ahnna Cho Park [00:44:08] Who you’re going to marry . . .
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:44:12] I joke around and I say as Mexican children we’re born with an internal GPS. I don't care if I'm in Spain; my mother knows where I am. And one time she missed the time when she thought I was returning from France, and I was returning the following day, not the previous day, because of the hour change. By the time I got there my door was full of Post-Its from people from the church, from neighbors, “Your mom's looking for you!” Now we have internet, but back then I would have to go to the phone and call her. And so it's just this clashing of what it looks like to be a parent. How do we guide them? How do we interact with our children? What's expected of us and not? And that’s where another special way of imagining ministry can come, because we certainly need each other as a community, and we have inherited these ministry models that say it's silos and it's age segregated. And then it's the minister who's in charge of this particular ministry, and then everybody just kind of comes . . . But if you're not from the youth group, then you don't belong here. But how can we invite others in ministry to say, How can we reimagine this? Because certainly parents have a lot to give and contribute toward the faith building of all ages in our community and especially young people. But also, how do we come alongside of them in this very tough job that they don’t have an instruction manual for no matter how many books are out there? And then as parents who are navigating the realities of two cultures who are informing them of a completely different set of ways of doing the right thing as parents . . . I see the possibilities of imagining beautiful spaces of community collaboration towards the faith building of the adults and the youth, and as you pointed out, to encourage parents to know that it may seem on the outside that you are no longer the big influencer in their life and that somebody else, their friends, or the people around them, social media, is the one speaking louder to their life. But research shows over and over again that the number one influencer is always their parents because they may not show it on the outside, but on the inside, they're like, “Hmm, my parents may not like this” . . . or “This is what they're expecting of me. I really would like to go in this direction, choose this career. But I know my parents want me to do this.” And so there's that tug of war. And to just encourage parents: you play a huge role, and the more you're able to have that presence in their life even by participating in some of these things, highlighting to them, “This is important. This is important because you see, I'm investing my time and my talent in this place.” I did want to ask you, you mentioned that there's been this shift in your ministry and in the church toward giving more agency to youth and including them as part of the leadership. What have parents said about that? How are they viewing that? What are their ideas about doing this kind of shift?
Ahnna Cho Park [00:47:53] Yeah. You touched on so many important points, and I just want to comment that I love the Post-It story you shared with all the Post-Its on your door and people telling you your mom's looking for you, because in a sense, if you kind of translate that into the spiritual context, I think really that's the role of the church. I think the role of the church is to surround our young students, young adults, and youth with that kind of loving presence. And it's absolutely normal for youth and any child growing up in their developmental stages to challenge the boundaries set for us. That's how they learn. They want to see what their limitations are. They want to know how far they can push. So I think, yes, the parents are the primary influencers and they play the biggest role in the youth’s life. However, I think there are different ways that the parent can walk alongside the student at this stage in life. How do we imagine this? A term that's been in my mind a lot lately is intergenerational friendship. I think friendship is an incredible spiritual value. But I think intergenerational friendship is something that we need to cultivate in our churches. This is definitely a foreign concept in the Asian culture, where the first thing you ask each other when you meet a new person is how old are you: What's your name? What year were you born? Because that sets the hierarchy. But I think God invites us to the church community so that we can be a resource for one another. And man, we lose so much of that when we don't cultivate, when we don't imagine friendships across different life stages. I've seen this happen in such amazing ways from this congregation and the previous churches that I've served. Just to give an idea of what it can look like—I mean, the possibilities are endless, but just to give an idea, there was this one student who was struggling with his career goals and needed to do his college apps. And the father, the son, they're kind of butting heads about all of this. But he asked me to not only help him with his college app essays, but to talk to him and get to know him. And I was able to do that even though I was not his direct teacher or pastor at the time, and I got to know this beautiful human being who's incredibly brilliant, and we were able to have a mutual, respectful exchange that helped him not only write his essay but think about his future goals, and I also developed a friendship with this individual. There's another student that comes to mind. She's just brilliant, and she is an inquisitive mind. So I was a philosophy major as an undergrad. She’s probably read more philosophy books than I have, maybe. And she was having very, very, deep and significant faith questions. And her mother realized her questions are beyond her. And that's when she reached out to me, and I met with this student a couple of times. And then I realized that, you know what? I could probably have a very interesting and great philosophical, theological discussion with her, conversation with her, but I can actually imagine someone better who can coach her in this, and I connected her with my philosophy professor, who, praise God, understands intergenerational friendship. So when this high school kid came to him, sat down to have deep questions about faith and philosophy, he welcomed it with open arms, and that connection was absolutely wonderful. You know, our youth come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are smarter than us. They're very intuitive, some of them; more talented in other ways. And as adults, I think we should be humble enough to admit we may not meet all of their needs. However, we are part of a community, faith community, where those gifts do exist. And I think a parent's role—and parents have different capacities. If you are both working mom and dad both working full time to make ends meet, obviously that's a different story than a parent who can stay home with the child all the time. But regardless, that's why the faith community exists: so that we can help one another. I think the possibilities are endless. Another story that I just cherish in my heart is when I was worship leader at a different congregation, our worship pastor mentored a 17-year-old musically, but also faith-wise. This particular student fit into the youth group fine, but when it came to his musical abilities, he was at a level where he could lead worship with the adults. Our worship pastor identified that gift and poured into it. And that probably made a huge impact on his life and his faith journey. So I think if we're open to the possibility of intergenerational friendship, so many amazing things could happen when we don't just pigeonhole them into youth ministry. You don't get to talk to anyone else out of the circle if we don't do that. If we give them, like you said, the whole gamut of God's counsel and to connect them.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:54:31] That certainly is what has happened in different contexts and congregations that now they're seeing the results of having followed a model that is very age specific, and we're constantly hearing the outcries of the bigger voices, “Our youth are leaving the church!” . . . It's certainly a very complex topic whether or not it's really happening in the way it's being expressed. But a lot of it has to do precisely with that. They only knew the people that were their age. When they were children, they didn't have a choice. Their parents were going to bring them. But as they get older, they have more agency, they have more freedom, especially here in the United States [where] they get to drive at 16. [But] they didn't have an opportunity to meet the rest of the community and the congregation. And so it's not that they're leaving the church; they're just not interested in connecting with these strangers that they don't know anything about. So they go find other places where they can connect. And that's part of why we always encourage leaders and congregations to continue imagining what those places look like because we each bring something beautiful to the table. And as you pointed out, as a parent, as a leader, it's impossible because no human being can fulfill all of the needs of a child or anybody else, for that matter. And so what a beautiful space as the church, as a congregation, for safe relationships where people can get to know each other and invest in each other's lives! And also part of the legacy that the olders can pass on because they have such life experience, they have connections, they have networks. Some of them have had a trajectory of a career or having done so many beautiful things that young people are hungry to hear from them, they want to learn from them and be able to connect them with resources like you did: Oh, well, I may not be able to answer all this, but I know someone who can. But her parents . . . probably didn't have the tools to guide their child in this specific aspect that they needed, and how beautiful to be able to connect them to other opportunities not only for theological questions and certainly a very good space, because I know a lot of congregations may struggle with that, a lot of leaders may or may not have the resources; well, there's others who might be able to either help us or connect us to someone who can, and then be able to continue seeing ourselves as community that comes and builds each other and works together toward that faith formation. That's part of why we’re always trying to encourage leaders and our viewers and our listeners to imagine those spaces where we're really coming together as a community versus these silos, separated spaces by age, or a certain ministry title that is exclusive for this age group. But rather, what is it that I can share with others so that I can strengthen their walk? And then, like you pointed out, if I sit down with young people, they may be able to share with me as well some of the life experiences and some of the things they have encountered, which then informs and strengthens my faith formation.
Ahnna Cho Park [00:58:20] And kind of going off of that—it's a little bit different, but I think I think you're sparking something that's . . . I care a lot about this. I think it would be remiss to expect the youth pastor alone to fulfill all of the needs of the youth. First of all, that's impossible. All the youth come in different shapes and sizes with different capacities, and it sounds
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:58:45] [laughing] Isn’t that what we pay them for?
Ahnna Cho Park [00:58:48] And then there's another danger—I want to talk about how we pay the youth pastors later, but the danger, and I've seen this happen, is that, remember, youth are adults with training wheels, right? And a lot of times, if the youth pastor is a really wonderful guy or gal, they too are drawn to that person, you know? And a lot of times I think the youth pastors I've seen have this heroic messiah mentality, like, “Yeah, I got you, I got you.” But the problem is, I think it's really important for the youth pastor to not overcommit themselves or overestimate their ability to minister to that group, because youth are still under their parents, and they're locked down into their situations. But a lot of times the youth pastors, youth leaders, due to their age, job situations, whatever, they're very mobile and a lot of times youth pastors a lot of times take on different roles and move out of state or whatnot. When that happens, you don't want to leave the youth group with no adult relationships. . . . And the better the youth pastor you were, and the more devoted the students were to you, that can be a faith crisis. When the youth leader leaves because life calls them, it literally can be a faith crisis for the young people. And I think that's really important for the youth pastor, youth leader to know, to surrender their egos, to do their best but understand they're not going to be able to meet the needs of every youth, nor should they promise that. I've seen that happen so many times where youth are crushed because their leader just left. So that's one. And if I can talk about that youth pastor, how much we pay: it's not about payment, but I just want to mention that youth ministry is where the harvest is. This is the harvesting ground. Workers are few. There's so much that can be done now, here and now. And I think we need to dispatch our brightest, our most able, our best pastors to minister in this sector. Unfortunately, I think our churches don't allow that to happen for various reasons. I think finances is one. You get paid more when you're a senior pastor. Youth ministry is not income-generating. It does not generate revenue as much as with adults. So I get it. However, when we think about it in spiritual terms, this is where we need our best and the brightest theologians and pastors. I think it will be a blessing if a church recognizes that and sends their very best to minister in this age group. In the Korean culture, in the Korean church culture, it is not uncommon for pastors to see their role in the church as hierarchical, and it is not uncommon for them to see children's ministry as the bottom rung. And then after you gain experience [with] the youth, then you went to college, and then you become associate, and then you become senior. That mindset does tremendous damage to our youth because if that is the structure with which you’re dispensing your finances and your vision and whatever, if that's what is orienting your church's structure, then the youth will always get, youth and children will get, the shortest end of the stick. And that would be a huge loss in our kingdom work.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:03:14] And we promote—perhaps we don't say it out loud, but we promote that view and that perspective that you are in training for bigger and better things; in the meantime, here, take care of these kids, take care of these youth, and then we'll see if you're worthy of taking care of the adults. And so we continue to perpetrate this damaging way of ministry and those who are called say, “No, God called me to work with children, with young adults; I'm not here in passing. I'm not here to see if I can graduate to the next level of responsibility.” That continues that ideology that there's one ministry area that's more important than the other, that the people who are called to a certain ministry have more value than the others and that their abilities don't matter. And then we don't follow with the rest, whether it be the support, the resources, the money to re-empower that leader in that ministry that God has called them to do. Again, that counter-cultural way of thinking where the church says, “Well, it's the youth and the children who are determining who we are and where we're going and what's going to come next.” And yet we're saying, “Well, you're not really that important.” And I always encourage pastors to take a good, honest, hard look at what they're doing in their practices and say, OK, how much budget do you have dedicated to the youth, to the children? How much training and mentorship do the leaders and ministers who are working in those areas of the church receive, how much support? Again, with the aspects of honor, how much are we honoring their ministry and their efforts? Are we seeing it almost as a daycare? Or is this really a place of investment that we're making? I always remind them the faith development and health of youth and children is the barometer that lets us know the health of our church. If they're not doing well, you may have the greatest facilities, the pastor with the most titles and degrees and pedigrees, and you may have all the budget in the world, but if if they're not doing well and we're just kind of holding them there while the adults are being nurtured, we're just lying to ourselves. So that's really what's going to happen because we will see the results of that, and it will be too late. It will unfortunately be too late. And so we're always making that call to pastors and leaders to say, What are we doing? Because maybe no one has ever given you a space or the challenge to say, sit down, reflect on what you are saying without actually saying it? Part of what we struggle in the Latina church is with that clash in the understanding of ministry where the American interpretation is more of a career path, just having it more as that professionalized [role] versus our Latin American inheritance that it's about the faith maturity and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And then so then e625, they published survey results, and they certainly did the surveys in Latin America, but then the results here in the United States, and there was the same thing in Latin America, only 2 percent of Latina churches had paid youth ministers. And so that is something that people are doing the work because they're being called into that, and then how are we actually supporting what God is calling them to do? If this is not important now, then when?
Ahnna, it's been so energizing to really hear about what God is doing in your congregation and how God is using you as a leader. Thank you for just giving us this chance to take a little look at what God is doing there and thank you for being open about sharing how the cultural dynamics come into play as well. And we really appreciate how you have encouraged leaders and parents to reframe the way we interact with young people in their faith formation.
Ahnna Cho Park [01:08:30] Thank you. This was certainly fun, and I feel like I was energized too, and I learned something new from what you shared too, so thank you so much for the opportunity.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:08:40] Oh, thank you. We learned so much from you today, and we really want to thank our viewers as well. We want to thank them for joining us. This is one of the later videos, and so we appreciate those who have been coming in and seeing the different portions of the series, and we really hope that you continue to join us as viewers in the Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth project. We pray that these conversations inspire and encourage your efforts in ministry in reaching the next generation. Please join us in the next video in the series, and leave us a comment about this session. We really want to make this a conversation and not just you sitting there listening to us having this beautiful talk today. We really want to hear from you. Ahnna, thank you so much. Blessings in your ministry. We really appreciate the gift you've given us today.
Ahnna Cho Park [01:09:35] Thank you, Elizabeth.