Do you remember the youth room of your childhood church? Mine was on the second floor and back corner of Manor Baptist Church.
But before the sixth grade, my family left the church I grew up in and moved to a predominantly white church in the suburbs of San Antonio. And this church had an entire room dedicated to the youth, whereas, in our previous church, the youth were a sort of nomadic group roaming the second floor or the fellowship hall.
But whatever anxiety I had around being in this new place was quickly tamped down by this haven of misfit couches and chairs. There were four couches and not one of them matched or had seen the cleaning end of a vacuum since maybe Bill Clinton’s first term in office.
There were three rooms with paper-thin walls that we were separated into for deeper Sunday school discussion. There were volunteers who cared to know what we thought and, at the very least, wanted to spend time with as we tried to make sense of the world around us.
This was in the shadow of Columbine, concern of Goth expression and rap music – always rap music. The idea that someone my age could walk into my school and kill me had never crossed my mind. So, in the days after the tragedy at Columbine, adults who cared more about presence than they did about any kid’s choice to wear the color black was healing.
While many adults bickered about the best way to curb alternative forms of expression, Angela, the youth pastor, and volunteers cared about making sure each of us had a place on a couch or mismatched chair.
Never mind the educational requirements, pastoral presence and unanimous church vote it often takes to work on a church staff as a youth pastor. There is a gift in having the ability to create a space out of heavily used couches and outdated TVs donated by church members who probably learned it was more expensive to have a service get rid of their stuff.
Youth pastors build community and safe space around these sofas and Ikea carpets for a group of church people who are constantly on the verge of reinvention.
Now, imagine doing this during a pandemic, when an indoor space and a bunch of kids piling on top of each other on an old couch was considered unsafe. Forget it. In the last two years, I bore witness to these thoughtful ministers reimagining what welcoming space looked like.
It happened in church parking lots, front yards, over transmitter radio, Zoom, Facetime and just about any other safe way to look their students in the eye and remind them that they were not alone in the midst of the uncertainty around them.
A few weeks ago, Good Faith Media CEO Mitch Randall and I had the opportunity to attend the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Oasis retreat where youth pastors gather and rest every two years.
This year, for the first time, children and collegiate ministers gathered in the North Carolina mountains.
We had the honor of hearing how these people stepped up in a time of so much uncertainty; whether it was a novel virus, racial unrest or the crumbling of democracy on top of their church’s own demands to continue to be creative and “on,” these folks showed up in authentic ways.
During the breakout sessions, we sat in circles and shared in confidence the highs and lows of ministry the last two years. It was a holy time; knowing that this respite for them, however short, was important because, at the very least, a handful of other ministers could hear their story and affirm their calling.
There’s something about circles and mismatched chairs, it seems, that offer some holy space in ways that sometimes a pew cannot. What if we reimagined church at large to look like the youth lounge?
For every think piece and book about the changes the church of Jesus Christ must go through in order to survive, what if the solution is in the room on the second floor, or the church basement?
What if our pews became mismatched couches in a circle, enabling us to look into the eyes of people sitting across from us and reminding us that the God who holds each of us is as near as the person in front of us and beside us?
What if our ancient texts and liturgies were written on chalkboard walls that also held the group jokes and quotes from camp trips past?
What if communion was up for the taking as soon as you walked in? Maybe it would look like Takis and Goldfish. Would our cups flow with Mountain Dew or flat Pepsi?
And what if – despite it being a chaotic jumble of voices drinking room-temperature soda and trading snacks, asking who took the good Cheez-Its – we remembered that we belonged to a group that created space to ask hard questions, to share in finding out who God created us to be and to try and make sense of the world around us?