05 August 2022 | Lahti, Finland [David Neal]
Sitting together on a staircase inside the Lahti Sports and Fair Centre, the location of the European Adventist Youth Congress (AYC22), the youth group from St. Albans, England, shared their experience of church life, what they love, what they would like to change, and along with their impressions of AYC22. And then they were asked a further question. “In ten years from now, where do you see yourselves in the church?” There was a pause… so wanting to provide some helpful prompts, I tried to helpfully suggest, “Youth Leader, Elder, Treasurer?” The awkward pause continued – and then Luke Stickland gently said, “Wherever God leads me?” And with that – all 13 friends around him spontaneously gave him a rousing cheer.
Wow! Message received loud and clear – “we’re the generation that won’t be put into your traditional box!”
From our brief conversation together, St. Albans youth are totally enjoying AYC22 for many of the reasons common to Adventist youth past and present.
“I like AYC 2022 particularly the morning meetings in small groups – meeting lots of new people from different languages and cultures”, said Henry Stoner-Redfern. Layken Venter agrees, “The small groups give opportunity to chat, connect and get to know new people. Henry’s brother Freddie explained, “Instead of being back at home where being an Adventist is a minority experience, in this setting it is nearly the norm, which feels very nice and different to the reality back home. “It’s about making those connections”, agreed Ethan Manners-Jones, “and sharing ideas about God and what we believe, as well as worshipping together.” “I am enjoying the opportunity of listening to some of the world’s leading preachers – an amazing experience,” enthused Tyler Hamilton. “Surrounded by so many different Adventists – and different types of Adventists”, observed Emma Fuller, “it opens your eyes to who European Adventists are, and in a way deepens my spiritual connection with God.”
As I listened to their experience, I was reminded of my own faith journey growing up as Georgia Manners-Jones explained. “I’m enjoying AYC22 for its cultural diversity and youth who experience a faith that is the same as ours, which somehow seems to make our faith at times feel less alien, because sometimes in our own lives it can seem so. Knowing that there are many other youth out there – in the same boat as us – is just comforting.
With AYC22 soon to end, I wanted to know how local church life is for this youth group. What do they like, – even love about their local church?
“What I like about church is the cultural diversity of the music, how everybody comes together to learn more about God, worship God, with everyone having the same focus”, said Sara Stickland. Sara’s cousin, Eleanor agrees, particularly in relation to the music. “For me, it’s the atmosphere, the environment, especially when worshipping through music. I love how freeing it is, and how accepting it is of everyone’s unique way of experiencing closeness to God.” For Molly Wimbow it is “discussing topics together, in Sabbath School with friends who share the same beliefs as me – and doing activities together”. It is being with “like-minded people”, agreed Abigail Davison, “and the community spirit it creates, helps us together find answers to the questions we ask – that’s what I like about our church.”
What then, would St. Albans youth like to change? And although they didn’t elaborate too much on this, Sara Stickland made an interesting comment about the mission of the church. “I think the church needs to become more accessible to others who don’t know about it, and AYC22 shows the kind of environment you would like to show family and friends who don’t know much about the church. Bringing this sort of environment back home, for those who want to know more about God where we are, would be something I would change.” Maddy Wallis also has a desire to see more outreach – even perhaps doing church outside on occassion in a local park.
One youth group from one small UK city – who even though they connect incredibly well with each other, admit to still feeling ‘different’ through belonging to a distinctively minority faith group. The message I received is – navigating and engaging with the surrounding culture daily (at school, university and in the workplace) at times is tough and challenging. Church helps! And AYC22 provides a bigger story which says, “at times it may feel as though you are on your own, AYC22 demonstrates, alone you are not.”
That “Wherever God leads me…” moment continues to unsettle. On the one hand what could be a more faith affirming statement? On the other hand, I’m reminded that the Spirit does not always conform to how I think things should be. Message to the local church family… “What is the Spirit saying and wanting to do through the AYC22 generation?
[Photos: David Neal, Video: Daniel Kluska]