What’s that you say? Hasn’t everything we’ve ever heard, read or learned taught us that the youth ARE the future of the church? I mean, what about Whitney Houston’s lyrics: “I believe the children are the future / Teach them well and let them lead the way…” Isn’t our whole society sort of centered around the notion that children are our collective future?
I used to think so too. In fact, it’s probably, on some level, part of what led me into youth ministry. But after our 30-Hour Famine experience at FUMC Williamstown this past weekend, I’ve come to a new realization. In fact, it could be a whole new paradigm for youth ministry.
Youth are NOT the future of the church. Youth are the PRESENT of the church.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be teaching and grooming and preparing our youth for the future. Part of our jobs as parents, mentors, leaders, congregants, etc., is to prepare youth for adulthood, and to teach and equip them for whatever roles they will take in the church as adults.
But I think the church is doing itself a disservice by thinking of youth only in terms of potential future members/leaders. Youth are a vital and critical part of the here-and-now of church life. They are as much the PRESENT of the church as any of the tithing, discipling, ministering adults serving in our congregations today.
I think the common view of youth in church is that they are a sub-set of the congregation, rather than an integral part of the congregation. Because they generally do events “seperately” from adult members, because they often have their own designated/segregated space in the church building, and maybe because many of us have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager (more about that in a minute), we tend to subconsciously exclude them from our thinking about what Church is. It’s not because we don’t love them or want them around, it’s just that we never make much effort to intentionally integrate them into the mainstream of church life. We’re pretty happy to have active youth groups that are out there more or less doing their own things, as long as they don’t make us look bad. If they’re learning the Bible, doing the occasional service project, and not trashing the property, we don’t give our churches’ youth ministries a whole lot of thought.
Maybe part of the problem is that we’ve been so inundated with the so-called “culture wars” that we don’t know how to engage a teen culture that is changing so much more rapidly and dramatically than the mainstream of church culture. It’s safer to keep youth at arm’s length sometimes than to fully bring them into the life of the church and deal with the potential disruption that might cause to the way the rest of us like to “do church.”
I also think that some of us are too invested in being grownups. We view our teenage years through the lens of hindsight’s benefit, and impose our later learning on those early experiences. We want to tell teens, “You’ll understand when you get older,” instead of remembering what it was like to NOT understand. So we tend to engage them at a point we’re projecting in their future instead of just meeting them where they are.
I heard Greg Stier of Dare2Share Ministries give a talk one time about how it’s likely that most of Jesus’ 12 Disciples were probably teenagers. Rob Bell makes a similar point in one of his NOOMA videos. If we can accept that premise, it’s hard to deny that Jesus was setting an example for us. Certainly, he was preparing those young men to be the future of His church. But they were also at the very core of his earthly ministry. They were every bit as much the PRESENT of it as they were the future.
I am thankful to be part of a church that does value the participation of youth in the life of the congregation. And what I see is a sense of growing vitality throughout the congregation as people engage our teenagers and catch their enthusiasm for knowing Jesus and living the kind of life He calls us to. In fact, I suspect that if our congregation didn’t embrace our teens as much as they do, I probably wouldn’t have come to this realization about youth being as much the PRESENT of our church as they are our future.
In his book This Beautiful Mess, Rick McKinley talks about “signposts of the Kingdom.” Those things in life that point to the reality of God and the presence of his Kingdom in the world today. It seems to me that the more we see youth as the PRESENT of the church instead of just its future, the more we’re putting up those kinds of signposts that say how we value the contribution of our youth to the mission of our churches in our day-to-day, here-and-now living as the Body of Christ.