“Be the change you wanna see!” the Newsboys rocked out at a Christian Rock Festival one summer. The church youth groups were spread out through the stadium seating around the green lawn, and yelled and cheered with excitement. This is how they felt. This band understood how they think about the church. Their energy was around being the change, not talking about the change.
Of course, Newsboys wasn’t the first to say we should “be the change.” Gandhi is most often quoted saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And we’ve done with that what we do with most quotes we think are truly awesome: we plaster it everywhere imaginable. Bumper stickers: check. T-shirts: check. Mugs: check. Magnets: check.
But are we really being the change?
One of the greatest complaints that young people have about the church is that the church does not walk its talk. The church, through the eyes of many young people, is not faithfully being the change. The reality is that the church is situated on prime real estate for not just being the change, but for nurturing young people to be leaders of change in the world.
Nurturing young people to be leaders of change involves empowering them to be themselves. Whether is it adolescents or college students, they are on a journey of self-discovery developmentally. They are doing the same spiritually, and the church needs to be a safe place for them to be who they are, when they are, because they are. This means that we in the church need to receive each young person with open hearts and open minds. We need to accept them for who they are. We need to look pass the flip-flops in church, holey jeans, and random pop culture t-shirts, and hear their voices.
By hearing their voices, I mean listening deeply to what young people have to say, because they have a lot to say about a lot of things they see around them. Dori Baker and Joyce Ann Mercer remind us in their book Lives to Offer that “young people today are concerned about the deep wounds of the world” (page 25). Young people have insights and opinions that are worth listening to and worth taking the risk of putting these opinions into action. It means being flexible with our own ideas, giving up some of the decision-making that we in the church tend to hold on to, and giving it over to the young people.
There is a saying that the young people are the church of tomorrow. Friends, young people are the church of right now. Leadership development of young people is not for the church to exist in the future. Rather, developing young leaders is a partnership for the church today; a partnership that nurtures change in the world. The church learns just as much from young people as young people learn from the church. This kind of partnership opens the door for intentional intergenerational opportunities, where mentoring happens.
About fifteen years ago, while working in children’s ministry, the third to fifth graders were pen pals with older adults in the congregation. One of the third grade boys and one of the older men formed a close mentoring relationship that resulted in them working together in leading others in the children’s ministry to plant a community garden. The harvest from that small garden was used to make a difference to the hungry families in the community. This act of mission succeeded all because a third grader saw a need.
A high school student returned from a mission trip to Central America with a heavy heart as she remembered the children she had met who had so little to eat. As she transitioned back into normal high school life of school, dance practices, exams, and lunch tables, she could not shake the image of children sitting alone in dusty shacks waiting for a few pieces of rice and bread at the end of the day. She pulled a number of people from the mission trip together and she spear-headed a project called Feed Diques. Now over fifty children get at least one hot, nurtritious meal a week because this high schooler saw a need.
Why is this kind of partnership so important to the church? Because the way in which young people vision the church is a new and hopeful vision compared to the way we have always done church.
(*) Originally published in the Virginia United Methodist Advocate, June 2013 issue.