Cheap Answers to Tough Questions – A Youth Leader’s Perspective

matt ahoA Youth Leader Responds to our questions concerning why young people are leaving the Church.

This piece comes from Matt Aho, a full time Salvo youth leader in WI, as a response to the discussion of Marc Solas’ blog post on why young people continue to leave the Church in America. If you haven’t yet read Why Young People Leave The Salvation Army – Part 1 or Part 2, check them out for more background on this ongoing conversation. Dave Mantel, a former Salvo youth leader also wrote a response over at his site.

I think this conversation has become larger than just talking about why young people leave the Church. I have to admit I have no idea where to start. I think this is the fourth time I’ve written my response, each time with a different topic. But I think everything I have written so far has to do with the responsibility of the Salvation Army’s Officers and its congregants. So I’ll talk about that!

I remember playing football my sophomore year of high school. I had wanted to do this ever since being told as a 9 year old by a beautiful girl that I was built to play football. Oooo la la! I never really practiced anything. I played catch with friends, but really that’s all. Sophomore year and I found myself on the varsity team; not because I was good, but because I went to a tiny high school. Not knowing anything besides how to throw a football, I soon felt really overwhelmed.

The first day was really awkward, and after warming up, everyone split off into their offensive groups–running backs, wide receivers, linemen, and the quarterback. My friend Bill went with the running backs, so I joined him. It quickly became obvious I wasn’t suited for this position, as I was the slowest at all the drills. Being a running back requires agility and quick reflexes, neither of which I possess. So the second day of practice they sent me with the wide receivers where I fared much better.

Not pictured: Matt Aho.

I think The SA is like a football team, but we really only have a couple of the positions that we need. You can be an officer or everybody else.

The SA is made for officers. They run everything, they have all the power, they make all the changes. I think this is a big problem. I know it isn’t all about who holds the power, or who makes the big decisions. In fact, Christ tells us that His Church is against this very idea, His Church is about serving people and making ourselves the “least” (Mark 10:35-45).

But Paul also talks about this idea of us being “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17). And Jesus talks about abiding in Him so that we can bear much fruit, thus proving to be His disciples (John 15:5-8). This points to action on our part. I think you’ll agree that Christ did not choose us to become a part of his ministry just to shut our mouths and toil ahead. Neither did the great theologians and saints throughout our wonderful Church history! No, I believe Christ choose us to empower the powerless, give hope to the hopeless, make the weak strong, and give the world to the meek.

I feel powerless in The SA. All the major decisions of my church are being made without me. I talk with a lot of people about things I see and things they see that we do and don’t agree with. It’s not all negative, there are a lot of positive things we love about The SA. But we’re just shooting the breeze because it doesn’t matter what we say; our voices go unheard.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to be in a church where I’m not valued. I want to help The SA in any way I can. But I feel like I’m not allowed. Because I have to talk to my officers, who have to talk to DHQ, who have to talk to THQ, who have to talk to NHQ, who have to talk to IHQ, who have to talk to the General, who has to talk to IHQ, who has to talk to NHQ, who has to talk to THQ, who has to talk to DHQ, who has to talk to my officers, who forgot what I asked in the first place. Obviously I’m being ridiculous here, but that’s what it feels like.

As Dave Mantel pointed out, the Church has been worried for a long time about young people leaving. So what has been done? Where is our help? Why is it that everyone I talk to says the same thing, that we’re in big trouble unless we shape up, and yet nothing seems to happen?

I think some of it is because we keep getting cheap answers to our questions. “Keep at it!” “Don’t doubt Christ!” No duh! Scripture tells me that. But what do these things mean and look like in our individual corps? Why can’t we have less generic answers? Is moving officers a part of our problem? How can we empower our people that aren’t officers? Why are people put into positions of leadership that they can’t handle?  Why do I feel so uncomfortable asking these questions?

This is what is on my heart. I’ve never heard an officer say to their congregation, “Look, this is what we need to do.” I want that. I need that. Because we just keep working away at character building, Sunday school, VBS, youth group, and junior soldiers while young adults leave and never look back.

savisionI long for a church where meaningful conversations are held between pastor and congregation that shape our local mission and focus, and where concerns are not only voiced but addressed. I long for an institution that enforces a culture of honesty, transparency, and empowerment. I want leaders who are able to utilize every member of my church, who don’t have to leave the moment they get to know and trust people. I want congregants who feel like they are apart of their corps, not just by membership, but by having their voices heard, making meaningful decisions, and serving alongside their pastors in ministering to the needs of the Church and the surrounding community.

We need to be a church that has many different body parts, all acting in unison. and each with the ability to perform its function. So what can we do to achieve this? I think it starts by empowering our congregations, making people partners in mission instead of sheep to be lead. Start talking on Sunday morning about our needs and shortcomings, and working together to address them in Christ’s name. Stop making the corps officer do everything and delegate responsibility, even though sometimes it’s scary.

What do you think?

  • catherine

    Right on. I get it. Praying for change… from the middle….

  • Xavier Montenegro

    Let me start off by saying that I love the Salvation Army. For all it’s shortcomings, imperfections and policies, God has called me to this place to be the vehicle through which he wants me to work. I feel like he has used me to impact lives and communities. Saying that, I am not blind to the fact that there are some things that need to change. I empathize with people such as Matt who are frustrated and feel they are not valued or are not heard. People have been hurt by the Army; perhaps by its policies or by its leaders. Those of us that are Officers cannot be in denial about those things and although it may be hard for us to hear why people leave, it is an important conversation to have. We need to continually reflect on where we’re going as an organization and stay the course when we need to and also make changes when warranted.

    The hard part is making the change that is actually necessary. I think a great first step is for everyone to look at themselves as ask: How are we contributing to the problems? How are we contributing to the solutions? Now, I’m not trying to disparage the valid comments people have made on this forum, but in reality it is much easier to point fingers than to look critically at what we are doing and what drives those behaviors. Don’t all of us in the Army have a role to play in making things better? Don’t all of us have a stake in this mission? Officers cannot just say, “well, if the soldiers stepped up in leadership then it would solve the issue.” Soldiers cannot just say, “Well, if we had better, less authoritarian officers we would be on track.” There might be some truth in each of those statements, but they seem far too simplistic. I agree with Matt that we don’t need any more of those black and white answers. The solution may be more complicated than we might think and we inadvertently might be playing a role in perpetuating the very things we want to change.

    We all know that systemic change in the Army comes slow. We cannot expect big things to change overnight. Rapid change is not realistic with any large scale change in any organization or even in society. What we need are people who will endure and fight the good fight. We need to hear from the young people that have left and learn from them. We need to hear from the young people sticking around. Large goals are often accomplished incrementally. What are some small steps we could take that would get us moving in the right direction? I don’t think we’re at a point in saying the Army is worthless and we’d be better off disbanding it. There are some great things about this place that keeps people committed. Let’s investigate those things as well and build on our strengths.

    If we look at the last ten years there has been progress in some of the concerns Matt voiced. I think there have been attempts in collaboration and to have a person’s voice heard in the appointment process and in Annual Corps reviews (STEPS). THQ is trying to lengthen appointments. We are making progress in some areas. Let’s not forget even those small steps that have been taken. Yes, there are still concerns, but they are movements in the right direction.

    So if we want to make big changes I think it has to start where we have the most immediate impact…in our own hearts. All of us including adherents, soldiers, lay leaders, Corps officers, DHQ/THQ officers, and the future General need to continue asking the tough questions. Let’s be honest with ourselves as an Army. Let’s be honest with ourselves at the Corps level. Let’s be honest with ourselves individually.

    What we have to be careful about is being stuck talking about the problems and doing nothing about them. Being part of the solution is more difficult, because it does require effort not only on the part of our leaders, but ourselves. Change will not happen by only pointing out what someone is doing wrong and then waiting for them to fix it.

    After reading this post a couple of times I want to make clear that I hear the frustrations Matt and Dave express. They have valid concerns that should be addressed. I appreciate their honesty and vulnerability. These discussions are valid and I don’t want to make it seem that officer’s lack a role in what is happening. Tough questions need to be asked and analyzed. My main point is that we shouldn’t exclude asking ourselves tough questions about our own behaviors and motivations.

    • Jonathan Taube

      Good points Capt. I think many of us appreciate hearing candidly from an officer perspective. The reason this site exists is to create a forum for youth leaders and officers to share with one another and encourage one another so that we can all have a greater Kingdom impact.

      I don’t want to speak for Matt, but a common lament I hear among soldiers is that they feel like they lack a voice in shaping and directing The Army. Officers all have a seat at a table reserved for officers. General Bond reminded the crowd at the Q&A she participated in at our recent Congress that officers are only soldiers who are more mobile (though I would contend that difference is simply one of degree, not of kind as it is often presented from the officership). Yet so many in TSA leadership preach on the priesthood of all believers, and use that to motivate the “troops” when convenient, but practically operate in a monarchical, bishop led ecclesiology. So you’re right to say that we can’t place all the blame for anything on the shoulders of officers, but the seeming reality is that change only comes through the officership.

      This question of why young people leave reveals a lot about the communication issues that exist within our structure. That doesn’t mean our structure is bad, since as you pointed out, it is an issue relating in some ways to size. However, that’s not a complete answer. The responsibility for ensuring healthy dialogue falls on the leaders, since they are responsible for the structure we all find ourselves operating in.

      I personally think that before we worry about talking more, we should worry about praying more. That’s just my two cents though, I’m the chief of sinners and I need a lot of prayer. But I also need to be a part of a Body that prays, and that prays together. Unity isn’t reached through compromise (that’s worldly thinking), it’s reached through submission to Christ by all parties. Who decides what that looks like? Jesus. How do we all figure out where he’s leading in each situation? Let’s ask him more often.

      • Xavier Montenegro

        Yes Jon. More prayer, more humility, more brokenness. Right on.

        Let me share one of my great temptations as an officer: Pride. It happens very subtly, but I think being put in a position of power can be a great vehicle for pride to creep in and take over. Perhaps it’s the recognition that we receive or the responsibility that we have that tempts us (me specifically) to think about how great we are and neglect to remember that God is the one who is working through us and has entrusted us with responsibility. I needed to be humbled greatly when I first became an officer and he totally did my first year in officership. It was a very hard lesson, but a necessary one. This is something I have to continually check myself on. Pride is a great tool of the enemy against leaders. I pray that God helps me to see when I am wrong and need to take a different course. I pray that God helps me to be humble enough to let others lead in their own way.

        I pray Officers and Soldiers alike continue to humble themselves before God in order to hear his direction.

        Let me suggest that it helps to have young adults to become officers who will be a voice within leadership. The last session that was commissioned is filled with people your age who are passionate about reaching young people and have a perspective that is very valuable. I believe their voices will be heard and will help move us in the right direction.

        When a greater representation of voices is heard we can be a check and balance to one another. That’s healthy.

        Keep up the good work.

        • Matt Aho

          I think it should not be necessary to become an officer in order to have a voice in the Salvation Army. I think that represents quite well what I was talking about. The infrastructure of the SA right now is not conducive to hearing what people have to say unless they are officers. And I think even officers have a hard time being heard.

          And I know there is more to what you’re saying in your second to last paragraph, Captain Xavier, but it’s important to me that it is plainly stated.

          • Xavier Montenegro

            Didn’t mean to imply that you have to be an officer to have to your voice heard. I was just trying to give young people hope in that there are people in Corps leadership that are of their generation and will help their voices be heard. I think that is good news.

            I think everyone at the Corps should and can have a voice. Like I mentioned in my initial post one example of trying having everyone’s voice heard is the STEPs process. The instructions clearly indicate that officers shouldn’t complete it by themselves and should give people at their corps an opportunity to voice their opinions and vision for the Corps. Now what happens in practice may be different but I think there have been some steps taken for people to be heard. They are small steps and we might need more, but at least it is going in the right direction.

  • Jerrie Behymer Miller

    Well said Matt.

    A car has many of parts. It won’t work well without a tiny spark plug, an o-ring or fuse. Occasionally the wipers are important. Sometimes even the jack and spare are pushed into service. But the truth is, without a driver the shiniest car sits in the driveway.

    If God appoints you to be a horn, honk often and loud. If he appoints you to be a steering wheel, keep heading in the proper direction. If He appoints you to drive, learn the rules of the road and get yourself a license. Then, get in and buckle up for the ride of your life!