Ministering with, to, and as a young adult: Honest questions of nuture, angst, and hope

Stephen Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org
Director of Communication and Leadership Cultivation

German wanderlust poet Rainer Maria Rilke advocates in Letters to a Young Poet to live life’s questions so that in living them we might find both ourselves and potential answers. This has been an important assertion for me as I have ministered with, among and to young adults. Now that I am approaching my mid 30’s, having more or less survived my own young adulthood, I am beginning to be able to say something from my own experiences and responses. I am probably too postmodern to be comfortable calling them answers, but I’m ready to suggest that there’s something significant in the questions.

The significance of leading, living and ministering as a young adult is rooted somewhere in a pull between nurture and encouragement; frustration and angst. Young leaders are formed in that crucible of experience, between the kind and gracious words of persons in the generations before them while yet often being compelled by frustration and the unfulfilled visions within the community of those very same faithful people. I find myself still struggling between that tension of not knowing if I can even call myself a person of faith, because I am also a person of doubt and cynicism.

The tension between nurture and honest angst is essential for a new generation of leaders. Nurture alone might allow us to settle into status quo. Angst suggests that there is still discomfort that compels levels of response, energy, and creativity. We surely need nurturing communities and words of encouragement. But frustration and angst enables us to beckon those faith-rooted communities to the yet unseen, unfulfilled, unrealized possibilities of living the reign of God.

As Mennonites, unfortunately, we have managed to tame our history and our communities in a way that makes it difficult to bring up those yet unfulfilled possibilities without suggesting a kind of disloyalty. The massive institution-building of the 20th century has left much for the next generations to maintain in a time that privileges fluidity over staticity. Questioning the institutions and directions of our heritage or seeking new paths and venues for faithfulness can quickly be viewed as disrespect or lack of appreciation.

At a meeting for emerging leaders in Philadelphia, Fuller Seminary Professor Eddie Gibbs suggested that these are tough days to lead. He said that he’s seen many frustrated and tired young leaders. In that recognition he begged young leaders to continue the difficult work ahead for the sake of the Good News in a new day. His quick assertion brought tears to my eyes. I know from my peers and from those who are a decade younger than me that this is not an easy time to care deeply about faith. Or to live your questions and doubts.

I was 24 when my home church in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania invited me to become one of its pastors. These days that call seems like craziness and my willingness to take on the task seems like a combination of blind faith and naivete. But it was also amazing to be able to live out a sense of hope that emerged in the space between angst and nurture with a congregation that called me their own. I pastored with the congregation for six years and in those years the congregation grew, I believe, because we were learning to live questions of faith and doubt, angst and encouragement.

The struggle in ministering with, learning from and calling forth young adults is to learn a sense of living in
the tension of angst and nurture. It’s a significant space that Jesus must have known, calling disciples with strong and sometimes abrasive personalities toward a goal that wasn’t always clear and had yet to unfold. In between there’s a recognition of the present good that hopes and lives toward what is yet unseen. It’s ultimately a step of faith, calling young leaders with questions and dreams different from our own generation, embracing hope and waiting for things yet to come.

There’s a fragile hope that emerges between gracious nurture and angst-inspired questioning. Theologian Miroslav Volf recently suggested that “Christians should be our own most rigorous critics—and be that precisely out of a deep sense of the beauty and goodness of our faith.” For those of us who believe in the beauty and goodness of the faith, we need not fear the doubts and questions of a new generation
of seekers and leaders. In fact, the faith requires it to be relevant both today and in the unfolding days ahead.

In these times of rapid cultural change, hope is a rare commodity. In a time where relationships are quickly and easily severed because of disagreement and change, living with hope is a radical act. Encouragement and nurture require a posture of open-handedness with young adults who may or may not receive it to the ends that might be our own preference.

Living with the angst of young leaders about the current situation requires a level of confidence in the value of the work that we’ve done in the past and a willingness to change when confronted with contemporary realities.

Ministering with, working with and calling forth young adult leaders is not for the faint-hearted, easily winded or precariously perfect. It requires a willingness to enter into the confusing and questions of discipleship and dissonance. It requires us to live our individual and shared questions to discover a deeper sense of the beauty of the faith we say we know and trust.

Franconia Conference Leadership Cultivation Team: Aldo Siahaan, David Landis, Stephen Kriss, and Jessica Walter

1 thought on “Ministering with, to, and as a young adult: Honest questions of nuture, angst, and hope

  1. With my ‘mid-30s’ far behind me~ I must say I have been energized by the youth leadership in our conference… Don’t give up…keep on asking questions and searching for answers. Don’t let a little ‘angst’ in your life and ministry get you down. Learn to use it for God’s glory! I have learned that it’s in those difficult times that God can grow your Christian character the most.

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