Vocation of the Young, Vocation to the Young

Christine Housel

Looking at the topic of vocation among young people today from a global perspective is complex. Young people from the south and from the north have different issues. Each culture and context brings with it many differences, calling for different responses. It’s my privilege to work with students from almost 100 countries, and it is my continuing challenge to discover, appreciate, and engage these distinctions while working together with young people to find what they have in common so that we fulfill our mission as a global community that helps young people reach their leadership potential and discover their own unique vocations. 

I meet many young people all around the world who are motivated to find and make meaning out of life, stand for justice, and serve others. Many in the particular community I work within are motivated in this journey by their Christian faith.

At the same time, we observe major shifts in our world and church, unfolding rapidly and posing many challenges and threats to the flourishing of young people, and threatening the church itself.

I will focus here on a few trends that I see as common to young people around the world and hint at the way churches and communities need to evolve in order to attract and support young people. To fulfill our role as church, as educators, and as friends to young people, we must have the courage and energy to meet these changes, and engage young people themselves, understanding their perspectives, embracing their contributions, and involving them more fully. My core assertion is that we must partner with young people in new ways and create space in our midst and in ourselves for them, giving them more room to initiate projects, supporting and mentoring them, and giving them more decision-making roles within our institutions and common spaces if we want young people present, active, and flourishing.

Trend #1: We have only begun to grasp the impact of the internet on the formation of people, ideas, and movements. Images are beginning to replace words as primary. And the words and images and the ideas they carry are fast and brief. A role reversal is underway: instead of adults guiding young people through the information and ideas and people that will form their character, the young people are pioneering the ground while most older people struggle to keep up or even refuse to engage this new reality.

On the one hand, the internet levels the playing field, allowing every voice space and any voice to come to the fore, thereby challenging systems of power. It gives people in remote places access to new information, and it gives people easy access to “friends” around the world. On the other hand, of course, the internet gives uncontrolled access to images and information, some of which is unhealthy and degrading. Genuine community is taking place in this space, yet arguably it can have the effect of reducing some young people’s ability to interact with ideas and people with the depth and complexity that they deserve.

Like it or not, adults and churches need to get into this space, learn from the young people, and at the same time guide young people through it. To grapple with its implications, younger and older people must engage a dialogue and discern together.

Fast and Furious

Trend #2: Globalization over the past decade is influencing educational trends. Educational systems and institutions have become increasingly privatized and commercialized in both developing and developed countries, with a correlating increase in school fees for many. There is pressure to finish school faster. Many students must work while studying.

Education is becoming fiercely commodified: most students are encouraged to study narrowly defined subjects that reflect the current needs of the job market. Globally, there are more students in institutions of higher education, but critical thinking and character formation are often not regarded as important goals.

Many students are worried about their future. One young adult from Asia said to me recently that students feel that the elders in their country are stealing their future, refusing to share power, opportunities, and money with them. Students find they have less time to involve themselves in church activities, social movements, and civic action. There is less time, and less of a vision for, community-building and reflection. There is much competition for their limited time; they have far more extra-curricular activities to choose from. And often they make their choices for pragmatic reasons primarily – they will join if it will somehow boost their resume when looking for a job.

Reaching out to these students, we should listen to their struggles. Increasingly it is a countercultural act to create spaces that will allow for deeper engagement with other people and ideas.

Churches Left Behind

Trend #3: An obvious and disturbing trend is that young people are leaving the churches. It is not because they are uninterested in God, spirituality, or tradition. Somehow they no longer find the churches a viable space to find and express their spirituality and need for meaningful engagement with others. They will not stay with an institution simply out of habit or loyalty if they do not see meaning in it. Some denizens of the 1960s generation interpret this as simply a new version of their own experience of rebelling against authority and adults. But this is a mistake and will lead to ineffective outreach. Young people now have a different relationship with institutions. The institution itself is not a primary category in their lives. There is no need to rebel. They will simply not participate if they do not find something, and someone, that connects with their own personal realities.

There are notable exceptions. For example, many Orthodox young people are deeply connected to their institution, the church, as a defining part of their identity and spirituality. Yet the challenge of attracting their personal, vibrant commitment is much the same.

The participation of young people in the ecumenical movement, committed to visible expressions of Christian unity, is declining as well. The concept of denomination does not hold the same place in their identity as it did when the modern ecumenical movement began a century ago. There is not the immediate interest and felt need. We need new approaches that help young people see why work for Christian unity is important and relevant.

This decline might be related also to current approaches to leadership formation in both the churches and ecumenical movement. Notably more young people participate in the evangelical and Pentecostal churches than in the historic churches. I have heard it said that evangelical churches invest more in young people and put young people in recognized positions of responsibility, alongside more experienced adults, whereas the historic churches and ecumenical movement create internships, with the implied message that they will be given responsibility and leadership when they grow up, when their time comes. 

There is much at work in our world that objectifies and dehumanizes people, making it difficult to find genuine community – more so, I would argue, than in past generations. We are all called to work hard in the opposite direction.

Young people today are concerned about justice, as young people always are. They are looking for spirituality and faith that is relevant to their lives. They will not respond to leadership that is patronizing, arrogant, or disconnected. The blessing of their insistence and their impatience is this: if we rise to the challenge, we will have more people sitting in the pews who are there with purpose. If the churches are declining in their role and relevance, perhaps the young people’s call for authenticity is a key to stirring transformation in twenty-first century society and individuals.

Agents of Change

As always, young people need education, formation, and input from adults. They know they do not have all the answers, and they will accept such input when the approach is made in a spirit of accompaniment and listening – when they are given meaningful roles in the community, space to explore their own ideas, and appreciation, and when the adults admit they do not have all the answers either and express vulnerability in their own lives.

The challenges in the church and the world are too fundamental today for any group to handle in isolation. Inter-generational approaches are now not only desirable but necessary. Young people understand themselves as agents of change, and they will respond and participate with older adults, and within institutional structures, when the adults and institutions make space to include young people as real partners.

It is when we are building this kind of authentic community, which ultimately reflects the deep connection, love, and interdependence of the Triune God, that young people, and all people, will have the motivation, freedom, and trust to listen for their calling and find their vocation. 

Christine Housel ’01 M.Div. is General Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, based in Geneva. Founded in 1895, WSCF is a spirited community that encourages leadership, justice, peace, and Christian unity in its more than 100 national movements across the globe. The WSCF has long been considered crucial in nurturing leadership for the ecumenical movement. The World Council of Churches owes much of its founding and ongoing leadership to former members of the World Student Christian Federation.