Bishop Mark Hanson: Youth Look to Aid the Vulnerable

Test how we follow Jesus' embrace of poor, outcasts

In Q&A forums I am often asked, "What can we do to get more young adults in church?" As the parent of six young adults, I can identify with the question. With you I have a commitment to sharing the good news of Jesus, passing on the faith and supporting the next generation of leaders emerging in the church.

My response to the question is to suggest that we begin with where young adults are leading us and listen to what they are saying about the church, religion and faith. When I begin there, I become far more hopeful as well as challenged.

On our churchwide staff, we are blessed with a growing number of young adults, including summer interns. Many have had global experiences, such as through the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program. They bring a passion for a church that is responsive to human cries for justice and mercy. They remind me that faith is lived out in our complex, diverse and rapidly changing world.

"The 99 Collective" is one example of a growing virtual community of young adults. They are engaged in rich conversations through social media networks and now have met together in local communities.

In the cover story for this issue ("Spiritual nomads"), Ben Stewart reviews some of the reasons why an increasing number of young adults describe themselves as less religious or not religious at all. Among the reasons identified by social scientists is the perception that religious leaders and communities are intolerant, judgmental and hypocritical, as evidenced by the way they engage in public debate on a multitude of moral, social and political issues.

Taking seriously this critique by many young adults, how should we exercise our vocation as citizens? Is it possible for us to speak and act with a kind of generous faithfulness that overcomes this perception of religious communities as places of either vicious judgment and stifling conformity, or lifeless indifference toward moral and social issues?

At a recent Lutheran World Federation Council meeting, young adults urged us to make certain our public policy declarations reflect our having heard the stories of the people who are suffering and affected the most by these policies. I heard the call to express effectively what is most important. That is our continued witness of the God whose generous mercy is for all, not just one partisan faction, and who in Jesus Christ embraced the poor and outcasts, making their need the truest measure of all service.

I hear young adults pleading for constructive and imaginative engagement with one another around the question: What will serve the common good beginning with those who are most vulnerable? This question is more important than what positions or which candidates will address my personal well-being. Engagements in our vocation as citizens is one way we live out our baptismal vocation "to serve all people following the example of Jesus" and "to strive for justice and peace in all the earth." It does not mean we will all agree on the best way to serve or what will establish justice and bring peace. We will, however, be involved in lively, respectful, passionate conversations.

As Stewart writes, even in our worship we can "explore the sacramental politics of baptism and the Lord's Supper that run deeper and more radical than today's conservative, hypocritical legalism and liberal therapeutic niceness."

Sharing a living, daring confidence in God's mercy, let our witness be:

  • That as theELCAwe are a public church called to witness to God's love for all that God has created and is creating.

  • That we are committed to civility as together we discover and debate complex issues facing our country and world.

  • That public service is an honorable vocation, and those who serve the common good in government deserve the same respect and goodwill we show others in their vocations.

It is not only young adults who yearn to hear and experience this witness. In conversations with people of all ages throughout the ELCA and world, I hear a longing for a witness of God's mercy for all in the most urgent issues of our common life. Let our conversations and actions reflect such a public witness.

Taken with permission from the August issue of The Lutheran magazine.