Montague Williams on Church in Color
In this episode, Montague Williams shares about the opportunities churches have to support and nurture young people of color as they navigate the joys and complexities of their lives in the 21st century.
Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of contexts. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In season three, we focus on congregational ministry with and among youth by exploring five themes: youth agency, theological questions, the role of families and parents, intergenerational community, and multiple pathways for youth.
Kristen Verhulst 00:01:05
Well, Montague Williams, it's great to have you today on the podcast. I am delighted to talk with you about your recent book, Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. And so I want to say welcome. You are an associate professor of church culture and society at Point Loma Nazarene University in sunny San Diego. That sounds delightful. So welcome.
Montague Williams 00:01:37
Thank you, it's great to be here. It's an honor.
Kristen Verhulst 00:01:42
Is there anything more you might tell us—a bit about yourself, your ministry context, maybe even just a brief history of what brought you now to being a professor there at Point Loma?
Montague Williams 00:01:53
Sure. I have been at Point Loma four years now, so I'm in my fifth year teaching at Point Loma. Before that, I was in Boston at a similar school, Eastern Nazarene College, and there I served in a variety of roles. I was a professor, served as chair of religion and philosophy, and also chaplain of the college there. I did my Ph.D. at Boston University. One reason why I went there is because that's where Martin Luther King did his Ph.D., and so I wanted to kind of be in the space and interact with things in the archives there. My life as a chaplain was very influential in a lot of my current reflections on youth and young adult ministry. Prior to being in Boston, I was in Kansas City. And prior to that, I was in Chicago and I served as a pastor for families and youth in both of those places. I come as someone who's very interested in the life of youth and young adult ministry. I see my teaching life as not simply me providing a bunch of content, but me being a part of young people's lives. I think it's such an awesome way to continue this work. And I see the classroom as a place where young people get to discern how God is calling them to live meaningful lives.
Kristen Verhulst 00:03:36
That's great. And as I read your book, too, I could just sense this deep love for young people and for their stories, their voices, and to really express ways in which the church can really lift those voices up and listen deeply to them. So what is the story behind the book? Why did you write it?
Montague Williams 00:04:04
Well, first let me just say thank you for reading the book. There are a lot of books out there that someone can read, and even sometimes it's easy to get a book and it just sits. So let me just first say thank you for reading the book and for taking time to want to go a little bit further and digging deep with the book. Why did I write the book? Well, in one sense I wrote the book because the stories that I was hearing out of these congregations, they called for telling. And in one sense I wrote the book to offer a way of doing theology that brings young people's voices into the discourse, that allows us to do theology in a way that's not just grasping for certain ideas up in the air and then finding a way to apply them into our context, but beginning with what's really happening in young people's lives and letting their questions and their experiences shape our theological searches. I hope and I feel like the book is for people who are in youth ministry and young adult ministry, but it's also for people who are in academia wondering, How could I do theology in a way that's liberating? How can I do theology in a way that's lifegiving? I hope it offers not necessarily the model, but one pathway. But I have to say that if you really were to dig deeper, long before I engaged in this research, in my own life in youth ministry, I had lots of questions. Where I served in youth ministry, it's always been a place that is multiracial, multiethnic. And I found myself in youth ministry, in the pastoral ministry among youth and families, asking questions and not finding resources for my kinds of questions, because there has often been an assumption in youth ministry literature that the primary young people were thinking and talking about are middle to upper middle class or however you want to talk about that, white suburban young people and families. And while there are some overlaps in terms of development and all of that, there are some particular kinds of questions that come out of contexts that are necessary for the way we think and do theology and imagine discipleship. And in my youth ministry life, I just found that the resources were missing. So I have to say that shaped even my move towards the research.
Kristen Verhulst 00:07:18
That's great. And certainly the events of the past couple of years and then amplified by the pandemic situation have just reminded us again and again the cry and need for talking and really getting at these deep, deep issues of racial divide and misunderstanding and really deep breaks between people along these issues. And that reminded me of that one congregation in the book where the leaders thought, “We can't talk about this because it's somehow going to make it worse.” And the youth are saying that we have to talk about it because this is what we're living in every single moment, right?
Montague Williams 00:08:02
It's interesting when you engage in theological research in a way that's looking at congregational life because this is where we worship together, this is where we are making use of language in ways that helps us navigate our everyday life, both within and beyond the walls of a church. And if in that space, we can't welcome our whole selves, if we can't welcome our bodies into that place, we're asking young people to hang their bodies, check their bodies at the door on the way in and try to encounter a kind of discipleship that says your bodies don't matter, your questions don't matter, your daily life doesn't matter. And then on your way out, go pick your body back up and go do that thing out there. And when we do theology in a way that looks at this, it calls us to rethink some things, and it pushes us to dig deeper into our sources and look far and wide for how we can be faithful.
Kristen Verhulst 00:09:12
Indeed. What kind of comments and feedback have you been receiving from your readers?
Montague Williams 00:09:21
Well, the one that has been most interesting is . . . So the names of the churches are obviously pseudonyms just for the sake of protecting identity, and the names of the young people are pseudonyms. But I've done a lot of church-based kinds of conferences or youth ministry conferences where I'm working with youth pastors and college chaplains and stuff like that. And the feedback that I get that I most enjoy is when someone says, “I know this person, I know that kid. That kid’s in my youth group.” And then they lay out how they're making that connection. And that's actually really interesting because my method for the research is not making claims about what's happening everywhere. I'm not saying it's not happening everywhere, but I dig deep into three different congregations and try to show comparison and contrast in that. And then I leave it to the reader to make their connections. I'm not trying to say, “This is your congregation,” but when someone says “I know that kid” or “Oh my goodness, that youth pastor is me,” that's been the most interesting because they're saying, “OK, I guess I have some room to grow.” And like the churches that are in the book, depending on how you read it you can be upset with them, I guess, which, it's important to find the areas for growth, but they're not horrible people. They're actually trying what they feel is their best. And the point of the book is to say there are some things that are shaping our ideas and our practices, and if you care to push beyond problematic shaping, and you want to go in the direction of faithfulness, then you have to be willing to take a look at your own practice, and the book is making room for that. When someone says, “I've actually changed what we've done because of this,” that's been the most amazing feedback. The book is being used by different schools, and so I've been able to engage seminary students on the book, and generally the feedback is just like, “We enjoy this chapter,” or something like that. This fall it'll be featured at the American Academy of Religion. And so it'll be an author/critic session kind of thing. And so three scholars—and I'm telling you, three scholars who I absolutely respect—are going to respond to the book, and then I'll have to respond. Now that's where I'll hear lots of things. I don't know if I should be saying this on a podcast, but honestly I'm nervous about that, but I'm also very excited about it.
Kristen Verhulst 00:12:42
Well, and that's the beauty of that ethnographic research method is you get these beautiful, thick descriptions of a particular community. But then that really helps you to reflect back on your own community, right? And start to think of the different stories and aspects in your own space by looking so deeply at a different space. So, yeah, I love it. So is there anything now—and I know the book is still quite recent; I think it came out in 2020, so it's still relatively new—but is there an aspect of the book that you wish you presented slightly differently or wished you would have amplified anything you want to write a little postscript about?
Montague Williams 00:13:31
That’s so interesting. Yeah, I guess so. So you've read the book, and you know that throughout it there are young people who are making use of all kinds of things to lift up their questions, to try to expose their interest in engaging race and racism and the complexity of racial identity. They're doing things. Some are using jokes. Some are doing, like, random improvisational acts in their relationships with each other. When you pay attention, it's like, wow, look at what you're trying to tell us! Now toward the end of the book where I'm doing some things, where I'm suggesting some practices, I do point to making room for young people, to welcome those kinds of attempts into the life of even lessons and youth group activity so that it's not just this thing they're doing on the side, but welcome that insight, their creativity. But, you know, I never talk about it as joy. I never do that in the book. I even take time at one point to say to welcome young people's rage, which I think is important, but there is a particular kind of joy that partners with this sense of rage to break open the habitudes, break open the atmosphere that has been closing us off from engaging this stuff. Joy has the ability to open up that space and we see it throughout the book. But I never name it as joy, and if I ever had to write a second edition or if I were to do a part two or something like that, I think I would spend some time looking at the very narratives that I offer, and I wouldn't change a whole lot, but I would name the joy factor as joy, and I would seek to help readers and youth pastors and senior pastors and current theologians. I would seek to help pay attention to the joy that's at play and how joy can be this holy disruption.
Kristen Verhulst 00:16:03
Yeah, I love that. And in the Christian life, we're always really back and forth between sorrow and joy in all of this. Part of the calling is to support one another in those times of deep need, but then also to celebrate and rejoice with one another for the good that we do see in our life together.
Montague Williams 00:16:33
Yeah, with King, I talk about his aesthetics of resistance. And I highlight things we could easily look at, but I just don't do it in the book. You could easily look at it and say, This is joyous resistance.
Kristen Verhulst 00:16:48
Let me now just take us in a slightly different direction. So again, thank you for the book, and I do hope many people pick it up: pastors, teachers, even high schoolers, college-aged students, I think that would be terrific. Let's look now at your worshiping community, maybe it's even a community from the past, but what, as you think about your own worshiping community, how has this idea of the significance of youth voices, youth agency, we might say, how has that supported creative ministry engagement as you reflect on your own worshiping community or your own place of ministry? This idea of youth agency.
Montague Williams 00:17:43
Well, there's an article that I wrote, it came out in 2020 as well, that looks at a pilgrimage that I had the opportunity to lead, a pilgrimage of college students. And we did this pilgrimage in and around Ferguson, Missouri. And the pilgrimage ultimately led to the site where Michael Brown was killed. And throughout the pilgrimage, what we did is we met with pastors and civic leaders, even met with the chief of police. We met with lawyers, met with residents, local business owners. And for every meeting we would share that all of this conversation as a group, we're going to debrief it later and look for insights that we can incorporate into a communion or Eucharistic liturgy that we will participate in at the site where Michael Brown was killed. And we would tell everyone that we meet with that, and our conversations would go all kinds of places. And then as a group, my spouse and I and the young people that we had on this trip, we wrote a liturgy together, a communion liturgy, and walked our way to the site where Michael Brown was killed and participated in this Eucharistic act there. And just the feedback from young people after that trip . . . a couple of students were like, “I've never really known what this whole red wine thing was about. I've always done it; I've always tried to find meaning,” and many were like, “I feel like I know what it's about now.” I mean, if you think about it, this is a site where Michael Brown's body was broken and his blood was shed. There's so many things about that space. . . . There's been an attempt to clean it up, even remove the plot of ground where his body once lay. And here we are rehearsing this story about who God is and where God goes, and where we ought to find ourselves in order to find God, and how we ought to posture ourselves to join God in the kinds of things God is doing in this world. That communion liturgy in that site was a worship practice that I think has remained life-changing. The group of college students that participated in that trip, we're in a text group and we just remain in communication. If one makes their way through California, they're like, Can we stop by; can we grab a meal? I mean, it's remained a community. It's remained a meal-sharing community, really. And many changed their career plans, and they point to that trip. Now, part of it was the worship gathering in that spot. But it's also the relationships that led up to that point ,to find that within this liturgy, within this practice, it wasn't just about it's me and Jesus. It was a joining, a particular kind of joining that points to something that can only be described as hope breaking into the right now and going to the places that would otherwise seem forsaken. And in the midst of hope breaking into these places, we find vocation, we find direction, we find possibility. And it's because of all those relationships, the stories that were shared, confessions that were made, commitments that were made.
Kristen Verhulst 00:21:51
Right, that's beautiful. Yeah, in the very brokenness new bits of life are visible, even come forth.
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Kristen Verhulst 00:22:32
You already hinted at this earlier in our conversation, but you said part of the joy of bringing you into teaching and being a mentor, professor, and scholar is this deep desire to reflect theologically in deep ways and to really grapple with what it means to live as a faithful Christian in this world. And so are there certain practices or habits that you find really help young people grapple with deep theological questions in healthy and generative ways?
Montague Williams 00:23:15
This is going to sound a bit repetitive, but I do think pilgrimage is an important practice. Now that I'm here in San Diego, I'm ultimately in the San Diego–Tijuana metro area, is how I like to see it, which is in many ways an international space. And so I take my students, I always work in a certain kind of pilgrimage, and one pilgrimage I work in is a pilgrimage to the border where we participate in the Eucharist and worship gathering across the border. So there's a church gathering that meets right at Friendship Park—which right now we're actually not allowed to go into Friendship Park—so basically a worship gathering that meets at the border outside. It happens through a Bluetooth microphone that connects the group that meets on the Mexico side with the group that meets on the U.S. side. And we share music and scripture reading and prayer, preaching and Eucharist. And that practice, there is something jarring about it because you're faced with this massive fence that seeks to say, “This is a them and this is an us. . . . Certain humans belong here, and certain humans belong there.” And you see this fence go all the way out to the ocean and then it stops. It goes into the ocean, which is an interesting thing because you can see that it's not real. You see that you could, if it weren't for the people holding the arms that are stopping people from doing that, you could swim right around it. It's a big fence, but you could climb it. And it's a rusty fence, so you know it's not going to last forever. And you know that it's not supposed to be there forever, which makes you question whether or not it's supposed to be there. You look up and you see that the sky is the same sky. And so it's this worship gathering that defies the attempt at separation. And it's also worship that calls for bringing people together. So it's like, yes, this defies the separation. And yet it also calls us to be honest that this kind of separation is not holy. The separation that we see in front of us—it's not good. There may be some who have concluded that, Oh, it is what it is, and you’ve got to have it to a certain degree. But that worship, that gathering for worship, it conjures a new imagination that says we're committed to another way. And that pilgrimage back to the campus? It's a pilgrimage back where everyone's wondering how we can embrace the other way.
Kristen Verhulst 00:26:49
And I imagine it influences how these young people form prayers, whether it's their own personal prayer life or when they have to pray in front of others at church, congregational prayers. Even how you read the Bible, when you now have had these experiences, you're going to read the text in a different way with those experiences now.
Montague Williams 00:27:20
Yeah, exactly. Those experiences forming you, there's experiences of awakening. And you mentioned prayer. Another practice that I tend to work in is written prayers. I guide young people in workshops and actually, I also guide people who guide young people—youth pastors, chaplains, and such—on helping young people write prayers well and to do so in ways that are really getting at the stuff they care about and helping their deep connect with the deep of others and the deep of the longing of creation.
Kristen Verhulst 00:28:02
So the family, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, these are all significant people in the lives of young people. What have you noticed, what do you celebrate, what brings you some sorrow when you think about the role of family members in the lives of youth? Share some of your insights in terms of that significant relationship and what that brings to forming faith in young people's lives.
Montague Williams 00:28:44
You know, I'll just kind of speak off the cuff about something that I have found really interesting. And then hopefully, I bring us back to your question in a better way. I feel like there is a shift happening or that has happened, and maybe we're wrestling with that shift. But there has been an assumption for a while that what young people want are younger people around them and younger people to lead them, or if you find sometimes there is a young person in a church who is like 22 and feels like, Oh, you should be a youth pastor, and kind of push them in, and they even might think like, I want someone to pastor me; I don't know if I want that role. And I have found that younger generations have shown us something interesting. Now this is going to be a stretch, and I'm just speaking off the cuff, so I haven't done research on this, but I have found it interesting that in the past few presidential elections, the candidates who people are most fired up about are in their 60s, 70s . . .
Kristen Verhulst 00:30:09
Montague Williams 00:30:15
I think young people are more interested in continuity and the stories that have shaped . . . I think young people are more interested in the longer stories than what we have assumed. I think young people are interested in like, What were you doing during the civil rights era? Where were you? What were you saying? Where were you standing? How were you marching? Were you marching? I think young people are interested in that. I actually talk about this a little bit in the book—not a whole lot, but you might see it: there has been an assumption that everything that shows up on TV and in the media in black and white is in this inaccessible past. And I think young people are rejecting that. I think young people are saying, no, no, no. Clearly whatever everyone's been calling past is not done.Whatever the civil rights era was, we're not far from it. In fact, if we're not careful, we might get behind it. I think young people are interested in that continuity, the longer story. And so one thing I try to do in my book is to try to encourage people to bring forth the memories and allow that work of remembering well, to blur the line between past and present that we have made up. And to allow the work of remembering well to be a part of cultivating ways forward. All that to say, I think what is most needed right now among the generations is a commitment to very meaningful storytelling and conversation, but then sort of like, “Let me show you what we did,” and then a turn to “What are you interested in? How can we connect the dots? Because young people are cultivating new ways, new questions, they're dealing with newer technologies. But all of that needs to engage in the deeper well of questions and practices and the life that's been lived, and we need to do it together. I think young people have been shouting out loud that there's a longing for that: Don't let us have to do this alone. We don't want to be the future. We want to be a part of a togetherness in the future. Don't assume that we will figure it out on our own. Don't assume that we have the ability to have a blank slate. We don't have a blank slate. We need to understand our stories better so we can cultivate something new together. And so I think important questions are going to have to look like a demeanor of questions and deep listening across the generations with an eye towards the suffering other. I think this is going to have to be a way forward together. Young people want to belong to something deeper than just what they come up with within the year, the week.
Kristen Verhulst 00:34:25
And this, I think, is tied so closely to this idea of intergenerational community, intergenerational practices. There are many churches out there that are stuck on wanting to divide into groups largely based on age and generation. But I think where sometimes we see some of the richest community or perhaps the smaller churches where you can't really divide because you're such a small group anyway, you’ve got to stay together. But then you have those intergenerational relationships and the people all together worshiping. So I sense that is something you would champion and fully support: Keep us together, let us learn from each other and experience our life together? Any special practices you think that especially help bring those generations alongside? I love the idea about looking back, knowing your history, but then being open to new ways, especially perhaps new ways that a younger generation might introduce to an older generation.
Montague Williams 00:35:44
Yeah. You know, I guess since we're talking about families and intergenerational stuff, I guess I do feel a need to say that safety is important. I think any church that wants to really engage this kind of stuff well or any organization, you really need to make sure that the people mentoring and showing up around young people are not going to be a threat to their safety. And so that can mean some basic things, like making sure that there's background checks and training and checking in and all of that. I just feel the need to say that just because young people bring some very intense stories sometimes. Maybe along those lines, and not necessarily isolated to those lines, is the fact that some young people encounter church as a way to get away from what's going on at home. And some young people are engaged in church life when done well because they now have grandparents through that church. They now have the kind of relationship that could point to a future for them. I think sometimes it's easy to idolize “the family” to the detriment of young people without recognizing that church has the opportunity to be the village that helps raise young people and provide a path for them to imagine a future. I find that some people are just afraid of young people, like some generations are like, “Young people? I don't know, I can't do a Tik Tok dance.” But young people aren't asking for what you have called seasoned generations; they’re not asking for some of the previous generations to somehow become young people. They're asking for people of previous generations to care and to show commitment, and to display that a commitment to justice is possible and that it's not just on their own shoulders. I think helping generations that are older than young people, generations that are older than your current 28-year-olds, I think helping them become mentors would be huge, and cultivating a culture of mentorship would just be fascinating. It would be community changing. We need mentors. Every human being needs mentors, and not even just one. But there's something so vulnerable about that, of someone saying, “Could you be my mentor?” Or even someone saying, “Yes, I'll be your mentor?” There's like a vulnerability there. And if churches could be the kind of places that nurture that vulnerability in a healthy way for the sake of people. Oh, my goodness!
Kristen Verhulst 00:39:20
That would be amazing.
Montague Williams 00:39:24
And I've seen that. I've seen that in some way. It's not just all idealistic. I've seen that. But it's not necessarily how we think about church. And people aren't just saying, Oh, church, that's like a community of mentors for young people.
Kristen Verhulst 00:39:40
Yeah, that's true. I have one more little area I want to bring us to to wrap up our time together, for which I'm very grateful; I'm enjoying this very much, Montague. So there are so many different ways into the life of the church, to the body. And I think sometimes youth pastors or congregations kind of get stuck in a rut. I think there's sort of this one pathway that we got to get our youth on, get them on the right road here, and that will kind of keep them in the church. . . . But I think what really is out there is this idea of multiple pathways, that there are different ways that youth engage, different ways they want to engage and that they really should engage. Can you speak into that idea of thinking of this multiplicity of life together in the Christian worshiping community?
Montague Williams 00:40:49
Yeah. Let me just make sure I'm hearing you well. I think that sometimes people think, OK, youth ministry, that's going to be like our youth group on Sunday night or Wednesday night. We gather, and then we'll see you on Sunday, and then we'll come back on Wednesday, and invite your friends to Wednesday night, like that kind of thing?
Kristen Verhulst 00:41:07
Yeah, I think so. Yeah, it's like, here's the easy program, we got that program in place. The youth are going to do it, and we're good.
Montague Williams 00:41:15
So I think you'll find one of the struggles in youth ministry is that young people are very busy. Now COVID kind of threw an interesting curveball here, because depending on where you are, that's going to be a little bit different, and who knows exactly what we're going to be experiencing a year from now, but in general, young people are heavily scheduled. I even heard a parent say that they feel like they are their kids’ personal assistant because of the schedule. . . . But young people are heavily scheduled, and sometimes congregations operate as if they're kind of offended by that. And so it's like, Oh, your basketball game is not as important as youth group, or, You might be involved in these things, but you’ve got to make sure you come to youth group. I remember I tried a different path once when I noticed this, and at a place where I served before coming out here to where I am now. We switched things up. We were like, OK, when's your game, when's your meet? When's your performance? Our youth group will be being big fans of each other. And so we would show up. And that was youth group, being committed to each other whenever we can. Of course, we didn't get to go to everything. And it wasn't like the youth group was just that. But we sought to make sure that we got to each other’s stuff, and it was like, we're going to do this together. And that was a big deal because not everybody went to the same high school, not everybody was into the same stuff, but we'd take our little church van and show up.
Kristen Verhulst 00:43:39
Oh, I love that. And it's a real opportunity to celebrate your friend, your colleague in a very different context. They're playing the clarinet, or they're shooting the basketball or spiking the volleyball. And so you see them shine in different ways.
Montague Williams 00:44:03
And sometimes it's even outside of the school context, like a poetry slam or something like that at the library or at someplace that's not even all that city official and all that. But it's just a way to rethink youth group around a more biblical notion of church. It's like a way of life together. Once we rolled up at a high school for one—we were picking up one young person at the high school to get to something else, and this particular person—it's funny this person is now in youth ministry, so that's kind of interesting. But this person, he told me, “Hey, don't get too close; park further away.” I'm like, “You’re embarrassed by the church van?” You know, some people, they longed to be on this van to be a part of it. And one person in the group says, “I have to be honest, that's why I came to youth group. I saw you all on that van and I wanted to be a part of it.” It's even like a crew showing up is even a form of bearing witness.
Kristen Verhulst 00:45:35
For sure. Well, Montague, are there any parting words you'd like to give? It's really been a delight talking with you and hearing more about your book.
Montague Williams 00:45:50
Yeah, it's been an honor to be with you. And like I said, thank you for reading the book and I hope anyone who finds the motivation, I hope that you get to pick up the book as well. Parting words? I’ll be very simple: Protect young people. Help them imagine a future. And know that the kinds of things that we longed for and hoped for deep within that sometimes we suppress as like impossible? Know that those things are longing to come out and help us cultivate a new way.
Kristen Verhulst 00:46:30
Beautiful. Thank you so much.
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