Voices of Communion: Daniel Kirschbaum, ELCA Program Director for Young Adult Ministry
(LWI) – In 2021, Daniel Kirschbaum joined the staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) as Program Director for Young Adult Ministry. In this interview, Kirschbaum recounts his active involvement as a child in developing church youth programs, and how he hopes his work as a young adult could inspire churches to make room for ministries led by young people who share the call of the gospel.
He also reflects on his involvement in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Global Young Reformers Network and how he invites him to deepen conversations with people around the world on public and theological issues that matter to youth.
Tell me about your religious and religious background growing up?
Growing up, I went to an ELCA congregation in a small town in Wisconsin, which is in the Midwestern region of the United States. I attended Sunday school and religious training events. I went to summer camp every summer for a week. I attended Vacation Bible School, organized by my church, attended Confirmation Classes and First Communion Classes, and attended the National ELCA Youth Gathering.
I was probably an over-involved youth in church, but it was a space where I felt safe. There was definitely a gap between experiences that felt academic and experiences that felt more relational, because those relational elements provided me with a safe community and allowed me to lean into those relationships in a way that I don’t. hadn’t necessarily lived at school, or in other community spaces.
What are your current interests? What are your passions?
I like to be outdoors. I love canoeing and hiking. Basically, I like to be impregnated with creation. I am passionate about justice work and organizing people around justice issues like anti-racism, climate justice, and queer liberation. And I really like to play board games and volleyball.
How can churches create radically welcoming spaces for young people?
We are global citizens and digital natives* and have positioned ourselves just far enough outside the family systems for which churches are often structured. Churches should look for opportunities with young people that may go unnoticed. It’s important to young people that church budgets, time and decision-making reflect the values that churches claim to hold, such as anti-racism, climate justice, gender justice and anti-ableism – everything it matters to young people. So when we do evangelistic work, and these issues are not part of it, the church risks becoming alienated from young people and our evangelical values. Churches should be prepared to have difficult conversations that allow people to present themselves as themselves.
I often think that people are afraid of young people who say, “I am 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 seen our institutions become separated from our faith, and these young people have chosen to distance themselves from the religiosity of Christianity. There are many gifts that our churches give us, but this is what I hear from our young people resisting those gifts.
What are some of the ways you see young people engaged in public ministry?
In the ELCA Advocacy Offices there is a program to end world hunger, and we have amazing young adults (young) scholars in this program who spend a year on the Fellowship in our Advocacy Offices, learning the advocacy work and bringing the gifts and perspectives they have as young adults into the program. They work alongside our advocacy teams to influence policy makers. Hearing from the young adults and the LWF youth delegation who attended the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow this year was overwhelming. Their voices are prophetic voices and they have the ability to effect real change in our spaces of public ministry. It was amazing to listen to them.
How can the church better support youth-led ministries instead of primarily youth-targeted ministries?
A phrase I’ve said lately is that “young adult ministry isn’t really young adult ministry if the youth aren’t the leaders”. It makes some people uncomfortable, but I’m sure it’s the truth. I see a lot of people, usually older people, but people in general, who are terrified of just letting go and trusting youth and young adults to lead. I think the fear comes from a lack of connection and a fear that change might actually happen. It is possible that the “holy disturbance” to our present way of expressing faith is God speaking to the church. In fact, as a Reformed church, we affirm that disruption creates spaces for God to speak in our ministries.
How has your work on the LWF Global Young Reformers Network influenced your work at ELCA? Why is the work of the GYRs important to the LWF communion? Or what does it mean for your church, your work, you to be part of the fellowship of churches?
Working with the Global Young Reformers Network has been a great experience that has allowed me to broaden my own perspectives, challenge myself, and invite me into a conversation much broader 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 through fellowship, has deepened our work at the office of young adult ministry in the United States, and created a urgency of commitment to one another for the cause of the Gospel. Our work matters, our work needs to be heard, and we all need to be part of that witness.
* a person born or raised in the age of digital technology
Voice of Communion – The Lutheran World Federation is a worldwide organization that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we feature church leaders and staff as they discuss current issues and present ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring that churches and communion grow in testimony and strength.
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