Almeda Wright: listening to younger generations

By Ray Waddle

When adolescents talk about church, some adults ignore them, or misunderstand them, or fear them as an unruly young army bent on leaving the sacred assembly in ruins.

New YDS faculty member Almeda Wright, assistant professor of religious education, prefers to listen to them.

Faculty Photo
Almeda Wright

She invites churches to improve their own listening skills whenever they face a young person’s restless questions or dissatisfactions – and not feel threatened by what they hear. Much is riding on the conversation.

“As I see it, adolescents are not asking questions about the faith in order to reject it,” says Wright, who has done research on adolescent spiritual development.

“It’s just that their experiences as young people are changing and opening them to new questions about life. Their social circle is expanding. They are taking on more responsibility. They are undergoing more cerebral development, including expanding their ability to see other perspectives. So they are at a prime place in life and asking amazing questions like: What does it mean that ‘Jesus loves me?’ Youth push issues that go to the heart of faith – not to destroy faith, but because they want church to be the best it can be. They want to be heard.”

Wright brings a wide-angle view of the potential of religious education. The enterprise of religious education belongs not only to a congregation’s pastor or team of educators but to parents, liturgists and everyone else with a stake in church life. To her, it comes with an ambitious mandate – to build communities of social transformation. That means making connections with young people and the world they inhabit, not complacency about protecting the old ways of doing church at all costs.

“There’s a lot of data about adolescents leaving church, and there’s an old assumption in many churches that the young people will automatically come back when they get older and start families,” she remarks. “But many today may not be making that turn back. Something is happening to young people post-confirmation and pre-marriage.”

She urges churches to keep asking themselves: Is our message compelling enough that people will want to return to it? Does the message invite people into the life of God?

“Yes, the narrative of faith is strong and compelling – there is something about the message that you don’t get at yoga or a book club,” she says. “Church reminds us that a redeemer loves us and there is justice we need to do.

“But there’s a question to ask: why would people want to come? This question is not a one-and-done thing where you have a church conference and get it out of the way. No, the question ought to be built into all elements of your congregational identity – how you greet people, what’s taught in the sermon, what’s taught in religious education. I’m not talking about a rebranding campaign but about making sure this conversation is part of the ministry.”

Wright has a zest and empathy for adolescents because, in part, they remind her of her own earlier years. She was an inquisitive youngster in school and at church, a habit encouraged by her parents. Growing up Baptist in rural Virginia, she was taught by her father always to ask questions.

“He’d say, don’t be disrespectful but keep asking until you get an answer that makes sense,” she recalls.

She graduated from MIT with a B.S., intending to become an electrical engineer. But another vocation was making itself felt. She gravitated to teaching. After college, working as a math and science teacher of 5th and 6th graders, she noticed something revelatory.

 “I was teaching these students difficult statistical methods and other challenging intellectual tasks, and they were loving it and eating it up. Then on Sunday morning I taught students of the same age. These young people would be in church and be told: here’s a Bible passage, just believe it, and let’s not engage it.”

Her calling was getting clarity. She pursued her M.Div. at Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in religion at Emory, and became ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA.

“I now knew I wanted to invest in young people and present a message that says even a congregational setting is a place for adventurous inquiry.”

Before coming to Yale, she served four years as an assistant professor of religion and youth ministry at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. She is also coeditor of the book Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World (Chalice Press, 2008).

At YDS she wants to teach religious education in ways that survey its impact on theological and social debates but also regard it as a force for “informing, forming and transforming people in community.”

“I’m interested in presenting the accomplishments of the field, the trends and intellectual currents, and also how to go further with its social witness, its power as a tool of community organizing, social transformation, its role in building compassion and commitment.”

Central to such a vision of religious education is sharing it with rising generations. They are never far from Almeda Wright’s mind and heart.

“Some things about youth never change. They need to be heard. They’re in your face. They want to belong. But we can’t anticipate everything about them or about the world they are coming into. They’ve grown up in a world where terrorism is real, and they’ve known the financial insecurity their families may have felt in the economic crisis and recession. We in the church have to try to understand all that. Listening to young people is the most essential part of what we do.”

September 6, 2013
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