USA: It matters to young people that issues of justice be a part of “Gospel work”
Voices from the Communion: Daniel Kirschbaum, ELCA Program Director for Young Adult Ministry
(LWI) - In 2021, Daniel Kirschbaum joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) staff as Program Director for Young Adult Ministry. In this interview, Kirschbaum recounts his active participation as a child in nurturing church programs for youth, and how he hopes his work as a young adult might inspire churches to make room for youth-led ministries that share in the Gospel call.
He also reflects on his involvement in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Global Young Reformer Network and how it invites him into deeper conversations with people worldwide about public and theological issues that matter to youth.
Tell me about your religious and faith formation growing up?
Growing up I went to an ELCA congregation in a small town in Wisconsin, which is in the Midwest region of the United States. I participated in Sunday school and faith formation events. I went to summer camp each summer for a week. I participated in Vacation Bible School, put on by my church and attended confirmation classes and First Communion classes and went to the ELCA National Youth Gathering.
I was probably an overly involved youth at church, but it was a space where I felt safe. There was certainly a divide between the experiences that felt academic versus the experiences that felt more relational, because those relational pieces provided safe community for me and allowed me to lean into those relationships in a way that I didn't experience necessarily at school, or in other community spaces.
What are your current interests? What are you passionate about?
I love to be outside. I love to canoe and hike. Basically, I love to be steeped in creation. I'm passionate about justice work and organizing folks around issues of justice like anti-racism, climate justice and queer liberation. And I really love to play board games and volleyball.
How can churches create radically welcoming spaces for young people?
We are global citizens and digital natives* and are positioned just enough outside of the family systems that churches are often structured for. Churches should seek opportunities with youth that may go unnoticed. It matters to young people that church budgets and time and decision making be reflective of the values that churches claim to hold such as anti-racism, climate justice and gender justice and anti-ableism – these all matter to young people. So, when we are doing Gospel work, and those issues are not a part of it, the church risks distancing itself from youth and from our Gospel values. Churches should be ready to have hard conversations that allow people to show up as their authentic selves.
I often think people are afraid of young folks who say, “I'm spiritual but not religious.” But when I meet people who say that I often discover a deeply faithful and deeply Christian person who has simply witnessed our institutions become separate from our faith, and those young people have chosen to distance themselves from the religiosity of Christianity. There are plenty of gifts that our churches give us, but that is what I hear from our young folks who resist those gifts.
What are some of the ways you see youth engaged in public ministry?
In the ELCA Advocacy offices, there is a program to eradicate hunger worldwide, and we have incredible young adult (youth) fellows in that program who spend a year in fellowship at our advocacy offices, learning about advocacy work and bringing the gifts and perspectives they have as young adults into the program. They work alongside our advocacy teams to influence policymakers. Hearing the young adults and LWF Youth delegation that attended the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow this year was overwhelming. Their voices are prophetic voices, and they have the capacity to make real changes in our public ministry spaces. It was incredible to listen to them.
How can the church better support youth-led ministries instead of mostly youth-targeted ministries?
A phrase I have been saying lately is that “Young Adult Ministry is not really Young Adult Ministry if young people are not the leaders of it.” That makes some folks uncomfortable, but I am convinced that it is the truth. I witness a lot of people, generally older folks, but people in general, who are terrified to just let go and trust youth and young adults to lead. I think that fear comes from a lack of relationship and a fear that change might actually happen. It is possible that “holy disruption” of our current way of expressing faith might be God speaking to the church. In fact, as a reformation church we affirm the ways disruption creates spaces for God to speak into our ministries.
How has your work on the LWF Global Young Reformers Network informed your work at the ELCA? Why is the work of the GYRs important for the LWF communion? Or what does it mean for your church, your work, you to be a part of the communion of churches?
Working with the Global Young Reformers Network has been an awesome experience in broadening my own perspectives and challenging me and inviting me into a conversation that is way bigger than our local context. The Spirit connects us all, and we inhabit this creation together, and so listening to the strategies and postures of my fellow reformers across the communion, has deepened our work at the office of Young Adult Ministry in the United States and has created an urgency of commitment to each other for the sake of the Gospel. Our work matters, our work should be heard, and we all must be a part of that witness.
* a person born or brought up during the age of digital technology
Voices from the Communion – The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.