Rites of passage


Here’s a question: What transitional moments do you designate within your church year where members of younger generations can experience an expanded role of leadership as part of your congregation?

In many cultures throughout the world, rites of passage still mark important transitional moments from adolescence to adulthood, allowing the community to formally recognize emerging generations and pass along responsibility to them for the future of the tribe, people, or culture. But in the United States we lack such formal ceremonies. Teenagers still look forward to finding freedom through the acquisition of a driver’s license on their sixteenth birthday, and at eighteen we confer the legal status of adulthood to our minors, granting eligibility for military service, voting, and the ability to purchase spray paint and other paraphernalia. But we do not say, “Now, come and help realize our full potential as a healthy community.”

Sure, confirmation rites do bestow upon teenagers full responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ, as does baptism in free-church traditions. But between late adolescence and early adulthood, where do our youngest members experience the invitation and charge to assume greater responsibility for the life of the congregation, both in its present ministry, but also in its ministry to generations that are yet to be born?

Within congregations these developments most often happen informally. Sometimes, leaders are chosen out of desperation rather than intentional planning, such as in cases where more people are needed to collect the offering, or more servers are needed for communion. But millennials and members of generation Z want responsibility, and they desire to make a difference, and there is no doubt those same desires translate to the arena of faith. Are we giving them the opportunity to participate in our communal life and to help us be found faithful?

This kind of leadership development could take place as part of a formal rite of passage. In traditional rites of passage there are four movements. First, there is a separation from the community, where the individual is designated and recognized as a candidate for a new measure of responsibility. Second, there is preparation, either by the individual or under the instruction of an elder of the community. Then, there is the moment of transition, where the individual moves from one status to another (adolescence to adulthood). Lastly, the individual is received back into the community, and there is a celebration of the transition of status.

What could that look like in your church?

How can you purposefully facilitate a kind of spiritual formation that allows younger generations to take appropriate steps forward as co-laborers in the work of the gospel at the appropriate times?

Who are the older members of your congregation you could entrust with instructing and discipling those of younger generations, providing them with the knowledge they need to help the community continue to grow and thrive?

At what time of year could you recognize emerging generations within a service of worship and invite them to take part in a period of preparation and prayer, and then later celebrate their gifts as part of the Body of Christ?

Don’t just appeal to the masses. Make the invitations personal.

Tell younger generations you want their involvement, you know they have gifts, and that you are confident they can make a difference. Also encourage the older generations, and help them embrace their responsibilities to pass on the faith. Remind them they have something valuable to offer, and can help your congregation be a place that welcomes and builds up young people through the gift of friendship.

Raise up leaders. Make a plan. Strengthen the church, both young and old.