Transformative Covenant Communities

Whenever I move to a new city, I immediately look for a church home. In truth, even before moving, I often scope out the religious landscape of my new city and visit a few places of worship during house hunting trips if time permits.

I have been told that this is a little old fashioned but it’s still at the top of my priority list. For me, a church home is both essential to my understanding of religious formation and important for my sense of community. In order for whatever new place or city I am a part of to truly become my home—for me to belong there—I have to have a church home.

I have been this way long before I became an academic. I remember looking for a church when I moved away for college and even connecting with a church as a study abroad student in Spain. As I’ve reflected over the years, I realized this strange tendency is connected to the small, rural church community that I grew up in. It was a Black Baptist church, where we recited our church covenant every first Sunday from the red Boyd Hymnal. The covenant reminded us to connect “as soon as possible” with another body whenever we had to leave a church. [1] As we recited this covenant, we were both being formed and forming particular ways of being church—ascribing priority to the ways that God might work through groups of humans to help each other grow in faith and to feel connected and cared for.

It was in that small covenant community that I began to see the essential nature of a church family—a community full of those I considered family and extended family, people who encouraged me and helped me develop skills in a genuinely non-threatening environment. While one might be hard-pressed to find a church community like this anymore, small rural congregations like this one were ubiquitous for a time and represented spaces where children and youth were celebrated and affirmed for surprisingly ordinary things and were encouraged to do more. For example, every year we recited Christmas and Easter speeches, read Black History Month spotlights, sang, ushered, and served as secretaries and delegates for conferences, and participated in the “serious business” of the church. And even though we might have envied larger churches for having “better” youth ministries, we knew that there was almost nothing that was off limits to us in this church, and we knew that we would be affirmed in all the ways we contributed.

But even in a world where I recognize that my small rural community (as well as my practice of immediately searching for a new church) is strange and no longer the norm for my generation nor for most younger people, why do I bring these up? Why is it still important to think about church homes and communities of faith?

I recognize that as I am searching for church communities, I am also looking for places that embody the best of what it means to be the body of Christ. I am not looking for a perfect place that always does everything right because, where there are people, there will be mistakes and conflict. Rather, I am looking for a place where I can be shaped and encouraged and encourage others. I am looking for people who may not believe exactly as I do, but who are committed to working and growing together, in spite of or even because of our differences. I am also looking for an intergenerational space where I could connect afresh with folks in my age group as well as with folks older and younger than me in a way that models the joys of extended family and communities.

So although I recognize that “community” can be a fraught term (one that often has more baggage than positive connotations), I find myself returning to it often when I think of “good youth ministry.” I want young people to find places of affirmation and belonging to try out new ideas, to stumble at times, and to have people helping them up and pushing them to grow.

At times, these communities will want to push back at the enthusiasm and exuberance of youth. At other times, the youth will lead their communities as they strive to make sense of injustices or of the needs of their wider community. My searching also makes me wrestle with what kinds of communities of action and accountability we are creating for youth and young adults who often just need a place to belong and be affirmed, stretched, and pushed. Is the church situated to be the type of communities that young people need? I hope the answer is yes and that we recommit ourselves to creating covenant and transformative communities for and with youth.

Notes:
[1] R.H. BOYD PUBLISHING, The New National Baptist Hymnal, 1977.

Contributor: Almeda Wright
Presented by: The Institute for Youth Ministry


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Almeda M. Wright is the Associate Professor of Religious Education at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Wright’s research focuses on African American religion, adolescent spiritual development, and the intersections of religion and public life. Her most recent book is The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, and she also co-edited Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World with Mary Elizabeth Moore. Dr. Wright’s other publications include several edited volumes such as Albert Cleage, Jr. and the Black Madonna and Child and introductory essays for the Common English Bible Student Edition.