How to be heard: A young adult’s guide to church leadership
Figuring out adulthood is hard. Figuring out adulthood in the church can be exponentially hard. In our conversations with emerging adults in their twenties, we hear descriptors like isolating, confusing, marginalizing, and downright infuriating when young people try to put words to their experiences of church. Especially when it comes to being heard.
Perhaps we are so used to the amplified voices of young people on various media platforms that we assume they’re all brazen spokespersons for any and every movement, willing to authentically share their opinions at a moment’s notice. As with most stereotypes, real young adults are rarely like that.
Perhaps we’re far enough away from our own lived experiences of young adulthood that we’ve renarrated a decade through filters of confidence that age has developed in us.
Or perhaps you’re one of those young adults yourself, navigating your twenties and trying to find your way in the church too. You want to speak up, but you’re not sure how or when. Worse, you get invited to share your thoughts, and suddenly freeze. You aren’t sure how to share in a way that will be received, and you may be concerned about the relational fallout of being forthcoming about your experiences of church.
Enter Rebekah Bled. A piercingly insightful leader, she’s been serving youth and young adults throughout her twenties while navigating the complexities of this decade herself. Currently a minister to college and young adults in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rebekah has earned the respect of her church and of our team at FYI as we’ve interacted with her team in Sticky Faith and Growing Young cohorts, and through our new work with churches innovating young adult ministries.
Rebekah is, as she says, spectacular at being twenty-six. This has been a lesson learned through the hard work of trying to fit in with forty-six and seventy-six-year-olds across the church. Well-meaning adults who want to understand young people, but aren’t sure how. This is many of us. Whether you find yourself in her shoes or older ones, her reflections and practical suggestions will prove meaningful for the mutual journey of truly hearing one another and developing empathy. We hope you’ll share this practical resource with other young adults in your ministry and broader network.
My name is Rebekah Bled. I am twenty-six years old. I give significant time and energy to my church because I want to. I delight to. Perhaps you’re like me.
And perhaps we share this too: My church has often misunderstood me.
I have spent my entire adult life so far as a youth minister, even celebrating my twentieth birthday with the middle schoolers I was leading at the time. I have felt a growing confidence and identity in my own agency in ministry over the past few years: a deepening sense that my contributions matter and can effect lasting, even systemic change. As I move through the ambiguity of young adulthood, I have found solid ground in rolling up my sleeves and getting to work in what I often call the best job in the world.
Becoming “Our person for this”
In September 2016, I was sitting around a table listening to new research about best practices in churches engaging young adults as part of the Growing Young Cohort at the Fuller Youth Institute.
My lead minister was sitting next to me and whispered, “I think you are going to be our person for this.”
“This” was prioritizing young adults everywhere in our context.
“This” was leading older adults in the embrace and ongoing welcome of younger adults.
“This” was leading with empathy and keychain leadership.
“This” was young adult ministry in our context when we got back home—a staff position that didn’t yet exist, but began to take shape as we listened to research findings and passed notes back and forth.
Three months later, my lead minister called after a board meeting. “Ready for some good news?” she asked. “You’re our new College and Young Adult Minister! Now teach us how to listen to young adults.”
Finding my voice
That phone call began a long journey of learning how to be heard as a young adult myself. It sounds quite silly, but immediately upon being handed the opportunity to be heard by my congregation in a big way, I suddenly felt as though I had nothing to say. The sense of purpose and agency I had experienced previously seemed to wither in what felt like the exposure of a congregation and a context that had not listened like this before.
I was invited to meetings where I was the youngest by several decades. I was asked to give my strategy for reaching the grandchildren of the others at the table: grandchildren who were also my peers. I was given a budget request form to use for our first young adult budget since the 1980’s. I was given a title, an office, even a building to name, develop, and direct in order to reach young adults.
I was given every assurance of the board and of my lead minister’s confidence, and in exchange, I lost my confidence for a time.
All my life I have talked. My dad took me to a university for observation when I was two years old because I talked so much, and my mom devised a discipline called “Talking Time Out” for extra verbose car rides. These stories I share with you so you know that no one has ever called me quiet, meek, or mild.
But I stopped talking for a while during those early months in my new role. What could I say now that they were truly listening?
The courage our churches need from us
It is one thing to grumble with my close friends about how the church “doesn’t get us.” It is another to step up to the plate and begin to be known, both personally and representatively, when the church turns to me as a young adult asking, “Please help us understand your age group.”
It takes courage to let your voice be heard. It takes more preparation than I initially expected. It takes a dash of strategy, and at least for me, I am finding it takes a heavy filter in some situations. There are some approaches that make it easier for people to hear as well as approaches that dull your voice even to people who want to listen.
I am not an expert, certainly. But I can now say that though it’s taken a year, I have found my voice. I recently borrowed my lead minister’s robe and preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. That day the very same people who I felt used to misunderstand me walked up, shook my hand, and said, “Young lady, we need your voice. Thank you.”
Our churches need us. Our response to being listened to by other generations is significant. Our voices matter.
And because I believe your voice matters, I wrote this guide to help you think through the best way to use your voice at your church. It’s the guide I wish someone had handed me a year ago, or much earlier. And I am praying with you that more churches will invite young people like us to share our stories.