Election Season 2020: Representation Lag
The struggle is real: the U.S. election this year includes voting for president, the Senate, the House of Representatives, plus every kind of local election we can imagine. I wanted to write several posts about the election and perhaps find a different way to talk about elections than we may experience them in many other parts of life or ministry.
It is an interesting season for youth ministry as those of us who serve teens deal with the effects of “representation lag.” The representation lag that they experience (and we minister through) is created when young people form their opinions but feel powerless to express those opinions in the structure around them. Teens become able to develop, then argue opinions and positions based on their experience, knowledge, and cultural context. (And we know that teens usually aren’t shy about expressing their feelings or opinions!)
In the United States, we can witness a prime example of representation lag in election years. Teens are, of course, forming their own opinions (which is totally healthy and normal in their development and maturation process!), but they only have a voice in the election process and only if they choose to use it. They do not have the ability to vote until they are eighteen years of age (plus register and do a few other things), yet they are full of opinions they are willing to voice; hence, the representation lag.
Here are five ideas to address the representation lag in youth ministry:
1. Remember, the church is not the government. While the voting age in nearly all U.S. government elections is eighteen years old, your church does not have the same restrictions. Encourage your youth and your church to develop youth leaders, invite their input into church decisions, and seek to have youth and those involved with youth ministry serving on various leadership teams with voice and vote. Youth invited to lead and serve as caretakers of the church community experience less of a lag in representation. They, therefore, can grow to understand that they have value to the church through their voice and their vote.
2. You can inspire and educate your youth to see needs in the community and within your church. Youth will be called to give a voice to things that they care about. Look within the community already connected to your church for people, projects, and programs that need support, attention, or funding. Likewise, look into the larger community and help expose youth to needs that they can help meet or movements they can get behind with their energy and voice.
3. In this particular election season of 2020, encourage your youth to consider becoming a paid poll worker – or a “Poll Hero!” The website pollhero.org provides links for those interested in this vital role. The majority of poll workers in the past several elections have been elderly or retirement-age folks—the same age range that is most at risk due to COVID-19. By becoming poll heroes, teens can help ensure fairness and accessibility at polling stations, protect democracy, add valuable experience to their resumés, and get paid while doing it. Most schools are out on Election Day, so the schedule should allow teens to participate with very few scheduling issues.
4. Host meaningful, prepared discussions that represent a variety of opinions and viewpoints on particular issues that are relevant to your community. You and your ministry team can showcase that the manner in which the news, media personalities, and politicians currently treat one another is often not compatible with the kind of Christian responses we should aspire to in our conversations and relationships. People of faith can (and do!) differ in opinions, political beliefs, and more. You can help young people realize that different perspectives do not have to make enemies or further divisions. We each bear the image of God and, therefore, we each deserve to give and to be shown grace, hospitality, and chances for understanding. The Courageous Conversations series of resources can be particularly helpful in developing a culture of healthy interaction around traditionally difficult or sensitive topics. We even offer a free online course to help prepare you and others who help lead your ministry to develop the skillset you need to prepare to host important conversations.
5. Create safe and brave spaces and times, where youth (and others involved in youth ministry) can bring questions about stories or posts that they have seen and help to determine if those posts are made up, fake, misleading, or truthful. One of many challenges that youth face is a bombardment of news and stories, many of which have no basis in fact or have been heavily “spun” toward a particular political bias. Youth need relationships with trusted adult friends and mentors who can help them sort through the news they are being fed and make sense of it all from a faith-filled point of view.