The Synod Youth Forum, a new assembly event for young people, took place on 13-14 April in Budapest and was attended by about 70 delegates from all over Hungary. The Forum, which consisted of discussions tackling issues of faith and church-membership was organised by Szabolcs Szontágh Reformed minister and the Synod Office of RCH. First, let us listen in on a lecture that was given at the beginning of the event; here the lecturer is talking about the topic questions published on the Forum's website. These questions were to form the core of the group discussions. The presentation will be followed by an interview with the lecturer himself.
We have selected five controversial topics that we are going to discuss in five groups tomorrow. These five very serious issues are the following:
What is allowed, and what is not? – This question tackles freedom as opposed to liberalism. "Am I allowed to do certain things even as a church member?" - "No, I can't, because..." One particular question we shared on the website went like this, "What kind of freedom do you think you have within the church?" To which many responded that within the church nothing is allowed, everything is forbidden, the Bible only gives us laws. This is one thing we will talk about tomorrow.
Is the church boring and obsolete? The answers we got were quite severe: the church is boring, the sermons are boring and the Bible sometimes makes no sense. We will also discuss this.
The third topic is another "hot potatoe": feelings, sex and morals. We meet a lot of prejudices in these fields too. Questions come up which even us, church workers might not be able to answer. What does the church think about emotions? Are there any teachings related to sexuality, morals or relationships? I'm sure most of you have attended lectures or read books about these things, but do we actually know what the Church – to be more specific, our Reformed Church – says about them? We are going to discuss some taboos which don't often come up in our conversations.
Number four is prejudices against the church. I've already mentioned some of these, but this one question will summarise them all. It will include intolerance in the sense that the church excludes certain people. This is a typical point of view about the church that appeared in some of the answers. So, let's see if it's true. Another opinion was that the church is only a service-provider: it christens kids, it marries couples, it buries the dead... But it should not try to tell me what to do. This is another question we will tackle.
Perhaps the most important question of all is credibility or honesty. "How credible are the church and its ministers?" "How can people differentiate between the behaviour of certain individuals, ministers, church members and that of all the others?" "How can we avoid generalisation?" Or, "Are we the reasons for other people not being church members?" These are more things to think about.
You were in charge of evaluating the responses sent in by young people via the webpage. What are some of the conclusions?
Well, a lot of answers came, up to 570-600. Most of our questions contained a statement, and we wanted to find out if the visitors of the website agreed with them or not. These statements were referring to the church in the negative or positive sense. For example, "Is the church credible?" "Are the ministers honest people?" Or, "What are the sermons like? What are the services like – boring or not?" These were some of the questions we shared, and various responses came, mostly from people within the church. But some answers were sent in by outsiders – these were easy enough to recognise. The opinions varied greatly, and some responses were quite sharp. For example, we asked the question, "From which part of society do church members come from?" Or, "What age group, what sex do they represent?" According to most responses, church members are typically women, older than 50, and they come from the lower-middle or the middle class.
So the image of the church does not appear to be as nice as one woud expect it looking at all the activities the church is involved with...
What we expect is partly determined by former research results. There were some surveys carried out in the last 10-20-30 years, based on which we were able to select our questions, and we could set up some hypotheses. But then, we had some surprises too... The fact that the majority thought that 90-95% of church-goers are women, was a real surprise.
What exactly are the topics that will be tackled by the groups?
The five questions, or rather, topics, will be the following: dishonesty; prejudices against the church; feelings, sexuality, morals; what is allowed in the church and what is not, freedom and liberalism; the church as a boring, obsolete place.
Which do you think is the weightiest?
I think the issue of dishonesty is the most important and the most serious one. This is what we have to work on the most. But I believe that we will find an answer and we can discuss what the youth honestly thinks about this... We hope to receive some truly genuine answers from people who are already church members; who have experienced that it's good to be in a church, because it's a place where wonderful things can happen to them and the whole community. It's our aim to collect some genuine answers.
Which do you think is the most exciting question for young people?
It must be the issue of sexuality, morals and feelings. These are essential questions in a world where sexuality and relationships are offered at a very low price. It's obvious that the people who came to the Forum, and even those who answered the questions on the website are mostly interested in this cluster of questions, that is, sexuality, morals and emotions. They are curious to hear what the church has to say about these issues.
How are you planning to evaluate the answers?
The evaluation already started when we examined the responses people sent us via the website. This feedback will form the basis of this conference. There will also be a further summary which we plan to send on to higher-ranking bodies within the church. Of course, the results of this particular conference will take a bit longer to evaluate, because everything has to be properly documented. Each group here is going to present their opinion, and the presentations will be thoroughly examined.
One of the many young people participating at the Synod Youth Forum was Cseperke Tóth. I asked her about her expectations regarding this event.
What do you hope to learn at the Youth Forum?
I'm very curious, because I've looked at the comments on the "Let's put it together" website. It was interesting to read about people's expectations from the church. I saw there such a wide range of expectations, that I really wonder what we can come up with, having looked at all those thoughts and observations.
Do you think your final message will be well received by the church?
I think so. I believe that if we manage to come up with something that we unanimously agree on, the church must pay attention to that. It cannot be ignored.
Can the church be convincing for young people? What is your experience?
We have talked a lot about this. The problem about attracting young people is that - at least, I think that – those who haven't spent a great amount of time in the church since their early childhood are impossible to attract to the church. I also believe that people who come from a religious background will not easily be put off by the church – if I may use that word. They will constantly seek to belong to church groups and church communities.
Whose fault could this be, then? The listener's, who misunderstands the message, or the speaker's, who says it wrong? Who is to blame? The church or the youth?
I don't think it's a good idea to look for somebody to blame. I'd rather say that both parties should change their attitude. Young people should be more open. They need to realise that it's wrong to think in stereotypes... especially if they don't know too much about the church. And they are not to fall for negative influences the media sends their way. At the same time, it is the church's responsibility to find such channels that open-minded young people can access and use.
Would you say that the youth within the church find it easy to approach their ministers to share their problems with them?
Yes, it is my personal experience that young people within the church have such a personal relationship with their ministers that they approach them with any personal matters.
Could it be a solution that these youth themselves address other young people? I mean, that we don't expect the ministers or the church to reach out, but we ourselves go ahead and approach others.
That would be a great path to take, but first of all, it requires some really brave youngsters who are prepared to face people's stereotypical thinking, who can give powerful and convincing responses. They should try to start conversations and provoke thoughts, rather than attempt to convert people.
You have mentioned visiting the "Let's put it together" site. Did you like the video that you found there?
I quite liked it. What Szabi presented there, I found very positive. The only thing is that the success of this video largely depends on its distribution. We see that most comments come from Christians, so the question is if we could get this video to the real target groups. People who dislike the church or would never open up to the church.
Again, this means that we, young people are responsible for sending it on to our friends.
Exactly. But, as I said, this requires braveness and preparation.
...and a message that we are happy to send on.
The message has been around for about 2000 years. But this is a difficult issue. Braveness and preparedness might even make a bad impression on a young person who is about to open up towards the church, but it might also be detrimental for the church if you do something wrong as you pass on what you have experienced.
And you still think that a video like this would be suitable to reach young people?
Yes, I still do. Because most young people are on the net a lot, they watch youtube and spend a lot of time on facebook, so the internet is a great forum for the church to target any groups. A 1-2 minute long video like this with good design, good structure and good lines will be well-received by young people. Yes, I think it's suitable.
Okay. Let's say, the message gets to them. An individual has watched it on his computer screen. What then? What happens next?
Well, so far the message has encouraged him to fill in the questionnaire and to comment or ask some questions. What we do wonder is whether this individual will still be interested in following a video-blog that we wish to put together as a next step. I think the question is, whether or not we can promote this whole idea in such a way that any further video messages could reach the same group.
At the Forum we managed to have a word with Szabolcs Szontágh, Reformed minister, the main organiser of the event. We asked him about the past, the present and the possible future of this event.
My name is Szabi, and I'm a minister.
What is your formal name?
How did this particular Synod, the Youth Forum come about?
The source of inspiration was a Scottish study trip. We visited a conference where young people come together every year for a week. They call it Youth Assembly. It functions the same way as the adult legislative Synod. On our way back, we were thinking about this idea with the youth representatives. We thought this should work fine in Hungary too. That was the moment this process started, and we were determined to work it out. It took us over a year. So, this was the real source. Actually, we already had a youth forum in our church in 2000, but that was more of an educational session. This time the situation is a bit different: young people tackle certain topics in order to help the legislative synod and the relevant committees examine these issues.
Do you expect the Church to be open for all the opinions formed and expressed here?
That is what I hope. Even this short promo-video was viewed by over 4500 people, and we received a lot of comments; several people answered the questions. It was this very campaign that provoked a lot of thoughts in these individuals... and these thoughts we want to share in order to make the church their own church indeed.
Was the Church not reluctant to accept that you were involving such modern means in the outreach process?
No, they were not. But in general, this can be explained by the fact that they couldn't really see what this involvement really meant. My experience is that young people these days – even if this is not a very fortunate tendency – do not read, do not seek information in print. It would have been hard to reach them via printed matter. Young people communicate in web communities, with the help of music and videos. They use these media to tell the world how they feel. So we felt it necessary to join in. It was a big question for us whether the internet was suitable for conveying the very significant message of the church, and I was happy to see that it worked. This is a good channel of communication with the youth.
And what was the message that you sent to them?
We wanted to challenge them with something. We know from various surveys from inside and outside the church that young people are full of questions. We, church workers see that they less and less often turn to the church with their questions. There is a big gap between the need itself and how we could bring life into this issue. Our message was that we are not only building the church for them, but it is also our intention to build it with them. So we invited them to "think with us", bearing in mind that we have a message, and our good news is above fashion trends and politics. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. At the same time, we see that a lot of people still prefer other messages that do not stand the test of time.
What will happen to the many responses people sent to your questions?
The Forum participants will discuss the topics in groups. On the long run, our goal is to build these ideas into the future image of our church. We even have a committee for this purpose called the Church Future Committee. Once again, I would like to emphasise that we are not trying to replace the Good News of the church with another message. We simply want to code it in such a way that the youth of today can understand it. We've seen that the video messages work great, so we will present the answers to the questions in a visual format.
You are a "pioneer" in this respect... That you make videos like this. Where did the idea come from to present yourself in such a youthful way?
The idea came from the fact that you see videos everywhere... Seriously, whichever web portal you enter, people will use this form. It had become clear that young people speak and understand this language. There is nothing special we have to do but respond to this demand.
Do you think this modern means is the only way young people can be addressed?
No. I don't think it's necessary to replace what we've got. But I do believe that in addition to what we've got, and what – let me put it this way – we sometimes routinely use, we should also employ other communication tools that are available. Because if we don't, other groups will, and they will affect young people's thinking with these things. We already see that in matters like sexuality young people tend to rely on videoclips rather than on the opinion of a very good and open-minded minister. And the reason is that through this channel it is much easier for them to find the information that fulfils their momentary curiosity. It's also obvious that these answers will not be satisfactory on the long run.
Yesterday, in a programme about abortion we were discussing that the youth are not willing to examine the issue in its depth. They obtain some small pieces of wisdom, but they don't put them together to form a real picture, which results in many tragic situations.
When and how did it become your calling to reach out to young people?
It might sound strange, but my main motivation is my own younger brother. I saw him follow a path, and at the same time, God spoke to me. And it left a mark in my heart that I have to deal with young people. I have seen some groups that filled me with sadness. Young people can reach such horrible depths, and at the same time we, who call ourselves God's servants, are not present where people are facing agony and strife. This is my inner motivation to take every opportunity to serve young people.
Did you watch others walk this path, or did you explore it for yourself? When you were a kid, did you have such people, such ministers near you whom you could approach with your problems?
I did. But I could only see in retrospect what they really meant to me at the time. I come from North-East Hungary, from a small village called Szuhogy. My minister, Gyula Pásztor made a great impression on me... He was very quiet, but that was exactly what made him seem so powerful in my eyes. I went to the Sárospatak highshool, where my dorm teacher, István Török showed me an example with his openness, even though his temper was a bit short.
What will be your next project? I assume you will continue the video messages...
That's right. I will continue the video messages, but it's important to know that there is a very serious team standing behind this project. I dare say our script-writer is Hungary's best in his profession. A lot of our specialists are believers who are a pleasure to work with. And it's very exciting to see how God orients professionalism towards spirituality. I can't make this public yet, but we do have some ideas to start an intensive, many-sided, ongoing communication process with the youth. Let me put it this way: just like the most popular videoclips, we also want to be present everywhere. We want to attract people's attention. As a youth minister in the Buda Church, I often see that it's quite hard for a young person to get close to God's Word. And I see it as a sin that we cannot fulfil what we have committed ourselves to, because we keep bumping into our own limitations, and the youth feel it too.
If a young person starts his "walk" and encounters serious questions, where can he turn? Can your team be accessed somehow?
Of course. At rakjukossze.hu they will find the contact details of our Youth Office, and anyone can comment there. We follow the comments, and if we see a question or a problem that requires immediate reaction, we write to the commenter. Our phone numbers are on the website, they are public. People can call us.
Are you going to continue the Youth Forum idea in the future?
I hope we can. We can't see it clearly yet. It depends on how much we can mobilise young people with this present project, but also on how open our church is for this kind of interactive communication. But I believe that it's mainly our own responsibility to keep the engine going.
It would be a big mistake of the church not to be open. I heard that much more people wanted to sign up for the Forum than there were places to stay.
That's correct. Indeed, this was good news. I have to admit that we were a bit scared first, but I'm filled with peace right now, and as I look at these young faces – I've actually talked to quite a few – it's fantastic to hear about their backgrounds. I think we have the necessary motivation to go on.
My last question is, what was your greatest experience with young people?
For me the most amazing experience is always when a young person comes to me and tells me that he wants to belong in a group where he can discuss God's ways with others. I think this is the best and the most rewarding thing that can happen these days.
Translated by Katalin Burns