By Melissa Lauber
One of the gifts that youth might offer the church is to “make church fun again,” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told the young people from the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences who gathered for conversation Nov. 12 at Calvary UMC in Annapolis.
As youth ministries go through a transitional time following COVID and other changes, the bishop called the youth together for a time of tacos, Tik-Tok and talk to hear about what youth want and need from the conference.
Their answers varied. Some wanted fellowship, opportunities to play sports, to have fun, a place to belong, outstanding music, even a Beyblade tournament.
While ROCK, the youth fellowship and WAVE festival-type gatherings were placed on hold for COVID, the youth expressed a desire for large weekend gatherings at destination locations like Ocean City. Some said they also wanted smaller district-level gatherings in addition to the bigger events.
The bishop also opened the conversation for the youth to share their thoughts and questions about life and faith.
One young person shared her concerns about feeling safe in church in light of increasing gun violence in our culture. Bishop Easterling shared the measures being taken on the conference and local church level to ensure people’s well-being, but she also noted that local church leaders must begin to take the fears and worries of young people more seriously and address them.
One of the adult leaders spoke about a recent suicide by a student in her community. The bishop responded by sharing the story of the depression she experienced when she was 17, after the death of her father, and how those feelings led to a suicide attempt.
She encouraged all youth feeling any strong emotions to contact an adult they trust. She also prayed that young people in our churches be given the space to tell the truth.
“Church should be a place where we can bring our whole selves,” she said. “However God created you, you need to be able to bring your whole self to church and be welcome.”
And, the bishop added, church also needs to be a place where people can have fun. “Yes, it’s about God, and we’re supposed to be growing,” she said. “But church doesn’t have to be stuffy. There should be times when we can dance.”
With that, the bishop led those present in a TikTok challenge – they attempted Sponge Bob Square Pant’s dance challenge, and then quickly fell back into old favorites – doing the Cupid Shuffle and Cha Cha Slide together.
Just before the dancing, Bishop Easterling recalled some of the stories from the Apocrypha and other writings, in which Christ laughed, joked and had fun with his disciples. “Being a disciple, means being in relationship,” she said – in serious things and in fun, she said.
She encouraged all church leaders “to be present for young people, to listen to them and to show them who God is – more in actions than in words – and to present God in a way that’s inviting.”
When asked about the deepest things that she would want to share with young people, Bishop Easterling didn’t hesitate. “God loves us unconditionally,” she said.
“In the opening chapters of the Gospel, before Christ had performed the first miracle, before he had healed the first person, before he had resurrected Lazarus, the clouds parted and God said, ‘This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,’” Bishop Easterling shared. “We often think God is only pleased with us after we’ve done something, after we’ve achieved something, after we’ve become something, because that’s often the way the world looks at us. …. But God is pleased with who God created us to be. And so, before we achieve anything else, to know that God absolutely loves us without condition, I think is the deepest thing any of us can know.”