At the ACT Alliance General Assembly, the possibilities created by including youth in decision making are too great to pass up.

A diverse group of youth delegates at the opening worship of the ACT Alliance General Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden.
Credit: ACT Alliance

Dan Benson is blogging on his experience as a United Church representative to the ACT Alliance General Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden. Read his other dispatches from the meeting.

ACT Alliance defines itself as a faith-based organization. That is, all the members approach their work out of their Christian faith, whether they are churches, such as The United Church of Canada, agencies of a church, such as The Primates World Relief and Development Foundation (for the Anglican Church of Canada), or independent organizations, such as Christian Aid, whose roots are deep in the social justice soil of the church. Ideally, all the work of the Alliance and its members emerges from a deep conviction that God's dream for creation is one of justice, inclusion, freedom, and abundant life for all; and that as Christians we have a responsibility to do our bit to fulfill that dream.  

But sometimes it seems like we're a rules-based organization rather than a faith-based one. To be sure, an alliance that has to balance the needs, priorities, convictions, and beliefs of more than 140 agencies that come from all across the world must have a solid framework for sailing the inevitably turbulent waters of such a mix.

But, rules are meant to serve us, not to encumber us. And that dilemma became apparent as we struggled at the Assembly to include youth in a meaningful way.  

The Assembly is blessed (and challenged) by some 20 youth delegates from member organizations around the world. They're bright, articulate, passionate, and engaged. Any church, I think, would be over the moon to have these people in their midst!

But the challenge comes when these voices want to be heard. And not just heard, but have a place at the table. Surprise, but this is nothing new.

The current structures and rules don't provide any mechanism for a specific "youth" member at the board. And, changing the rules is a cumbersome and long-term proposition. Instead, we threw around other suggestions, for example, a youth might be elected by a region or member, or youth could have an "advisory role."

But is that enough? Is it acceptable to allow the rules to impede progress rather than facilitate it? I'm wondering, if the times and context were different, would we countenance a merely advisory role for women, First Nations, or others typically on the edges? Of course, history shows that that is precisely what happened in too many situations, but hopefully we can look back and realize that it was an inadequate response to a fundamental issue of inclusion and justice. Hopefully we've learned something since then.

We often like to say that children and youth are not the future of the church — they are the church of the present. They are more than just potential, they are the kinetic energy of the here-and-now.  And looking around the Assembly and seeing a lot of people like myself who carry but a dim memory of our youth, are we (who currently sit at the table) willing to concede space, voice, and power to youth? Yes, the structures and rules need to be amended to allow this, but the risk if we don't is too great, the possibilities too intriguing to pass up. And, we must remember that we are merely itinerant workers in a project for which we are not the master architects; we need to trust that those who follow will pick up the tools where we have laid them down, and will do so faithfully and truthfully. 

Dan Benson is minister at St. Paul's United Church in Scarborough, ON and a United Church representative with partner ACT Alliance.

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