The Challenge of Church

A panel of young leaders of our church being vulnerable about the gift and challenge of church.

June 6, 2022 |

Seminarian Evan Fitzsimmons, Pastor Nikkeya Berryhill, and Pastor Julie Tonnesen offer vulnerable answers to difficult questions on the topic of how they find themselves in the church today.
Image credit: Kim Ramsey

On the final day, Synod Gathering participants ventured into LR’s Grace Chapel for an open and honest panel conversation with young people to consider the gift and the challenge of church. Bishop Smith began the time together by relating a recent conversation. “Bishop,” he was recently asked, “How do we get the young people in here?” After answering with some good suggestions for resources, the reply was, “We have lots of young people visit, and some of them even get involved, but they don’t want to do it like we do it!” (Hmm, I wonder why they don’t stay?)

This panel of young leaders spoke honestly and vulnerably about their connection to the church:
Pastor Julie Tonnesen, Assistant Associate Chaplain at Elon University
Pastor Nikkeya Berryhill, Mission Developer and Christ the King, Cary
Seminarian Evan Fitzsimmons, LTSS
Pastor Jason Chesnut, filmmaker, Anam Cara Mission Start

Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Danielle DeNise, moderated the discussion and she introduced the panel by saying that first, they want to acknowledge: we’re holding onto Jesus AND we’re holding onto the church by a thread. And it is NOT because we don’t love Jesus. And it is not because we don’t love the Gospel. Their questions were: (1) What do you think people still love about Jesus and the gospel? (2) Why are we holding on by a thread; what keeps us here?
Consider these quotes:

So often the invitation is: come to the table and stay quiet. Or, come to the table and do it like I do it.

Jesus was a marginalized person— he stepped outside and pushed back on the systems of oppression.

What I hear students say again and again is that Jesus must also care about real embodied things; the thick of messy daily life with us.

That lakehouse with those guys is holy ground. It’s sacred space.

I have a colleague who recently said, “Being a pastor is easy.” What!? And it’s easy for this person because they fit all the boxes. They check all the boxes. So, they just can do things with so much more ease because they fit into the spaces that the church has built for them to fit into.

Oftentimes, students feel like when they enter into more traditional church or parish spaces, they feel like a box to be ticked off or a volunteer role to be served instead of as a human to be in relationship with. I think it’s in that that they feel used. They feel like the church wants them to show up and do this one particular thing, but that the fullness of their identity, or their questions, or their passions, or the ways that they feel called to serve the church, and the gifts they have to give the church don’t really matter, because all we need them to do is be acolytes or serve on a committee or whatever. 

We stake our lives on the premise that the end is not death. If the church as we know it is dying within the next forty years, we should be excited. Because it’s in death that God creates a new thing. God brings forth new life in death—an opportunity.

This beautiful conversation felt like just the tip of the iceberg for this topic with so much more to discover. We look forward to continuing to look to the future of the church by listening to youth, young people, and others whose voices are not traditionally at the table.

The synod staff will be continuing this conversation with young people in the next several months. If you know a young person hanging on to the church by a thread, please let us know so that we can connect. We want to learn how we might better listen to these voices which are full of faith but not finding their fit in the church of today.



Synod Staff


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