I recently came across an article about someone who zealously joined the alt-right movement, quickly rising through the ranks and becoming a well-respected member and moderator of various internet communities devoted to white nationalism. He spent his time befriending Neo-Nazis, and even instructing his family on what to do if the FBI showed up at the door. All of that, of course, until he had to step back from his duties for the summer so he could go as a camper to his Jewish sleep-away camp.
This 13-year-old became so ingrained in this society for one simple reason. As he later told his parents, “I liked them because they were adults and they thought I was an adult. I was one of them. I was participating in a conversation. They took me seriously. No one ever took me seriously — not you, not my teachers, no one. If I expressed an opinion, you thought I was just a dumb… kid trying to find my voice. I already had my voice.”
Thousands of young adults are looking for that same type of acceptance, for someone who takes them seriously. Is your church a place where young people are being taken seriously?
Here are four things you can do to help empower the next generation and help them make a difference for the Kingdom of God.
1. LISTEN TO THEM
Teenagers and young adults have a lot to say. Let’s follow James’ advice and be quick to hear them. Remember that these young men and women have grown up in a digital world; they never lived in a pre-internet society. That means that since they were born, they’ve had access to an unimaginable wealth of resources; tips, tricks, life hacks, and of course, innumerable opinions. Because of the abundant information available at their fingertips, this rising generation has been ingrained with at least a healthy dose of skepticism.
This skepticism leads them to bringing up the questions that we’ve been too afraid to ask. Take time to hear their concerns because there just might be something to them. If you’re in leadership in your church, make sure you’re taking the time to hear from those who are younger than you (and those who are older than you). Take the time to hear them out, listening intently to understand their point of view, not just to point out why they’re wrong. Teenagers and young adults (just like all of us) are looking for a place to be accepted, understood, and valued.
2. BE PATIENT WITH THEM
Teenagers and young adults inhabit an utterly perplexing world of in-betweens and mixed messages. We expect them to make major life decisions, and yet we consistently tell them that they’re naive and don’t know what they’re talking about. They are under a ton of stress, now more than ever. Think about it: in the midst of the most turbulent years of their lives, teenagers are expected to make decisions that will drastically affect their future.
There is a 15-year-old in your church who, within the last twelve months, has grown a foot taller, his voice has dropped a full octave, and has started to realize that he’s quite curious to find out the exact effects that “cooties” might have on him. He doesn’t even recognize the person looking back at him in the mirror because of all the changes going on, and now society is telling him that he needs to have the next 60 years of his life planned out.
Give them a break.
Give them room to breathe, and let them know that it’s okay to not have everything figured out. Let them know that it’s okay to fail. Failure is an opportunity to embrace grace – from God and from the church. Make sure your church is a place of grace. Be patient with them as they learn what the Gospel is all about and how it applies to their lives. Be an example of grace in the midst of failure because the cross is proof that we have all received grace upon grace in the midst of our own failure.
3. LET THEM OUT OF QUARANTINE
In many churches, “the youth” are treated as if they might infect the rest of the church should we let the two groups ever have the misfortune of coming into contact with each other. As a result, many congregations separate their students and young adults at every opportunity – running youth group concurrently with the main service, not considering young people when planning big events, or treating them as a different class of citizens all together.
The truth is, young people will most likely infect the rest of your church if you let them too close together, but what you’ll find is that it’s actually a really good thing. Our young people will bring fresh perspectives to the table as well as a host of spiritual gifts and talents that the church can truly benefit from. Yet the Church often suffers because we are quarantining this essential part of the body simply because they’re “too young.” Jesus used a group of young men to change the world. What would our churches look like if we let our students and young adults out of the nursery to be part of the full Body of Christ?
Take the time to get to know the young people in your church, find out about their gifts and talents, and help them engage in ministries that will allow them to be used to their fullest potential.
4. STOP ENTERTAINING THEM
This final point goes right along with the third. We frequently assume that teenagers and young adults just want to be entertained at church, so we set up programs to make sure they have fun. Then they graduate high school or move into an “adult” small group and realize that it’s not just fun and games anymore. It’s the ultimate Christian bait and switch: “Come to youth group; we’ll play ridiculous games, listen to cool music, and throw marshmallows at your face! Then when you graduate, we’ll expect you to be a fully functional, mature disciple of Jesus Christ who is ready to plant a network of churches.”
Yes, given the opportunity, many of us would choose to be entertained rather than devote ourselves to the perpetual self-denial and devotion to God that being a Christian is really all about. We can’t be surprised at the statistics of students who leave the church after they graduate if the church they’ve graduated into looks nothing like the one they’ve spent the last seven years of their life involved in. They don’t care about your contemporary worship service. There’s no amount of lights or smoke machines that will keep young people in the church. The only thing that will truly keep people engaged in the Church is Jesus. Your students will stick around because they see that your church cares about Jesus more than worship style, or anything else for that matter. They want to see the Gospel being lived out because they yearn to see that the Gospel truly changes lives.
We simply cannot compete with the entertainment options that are available, but we can provide something so much better. What we need to be providing is a community of people who put Jesus first and who care about them.
If we want to see students mature into spiritual giants who make an impact for God’s Kingdom, we need to make them a priority in our churches. We need to teach them what it means to take up your cross daily and follow Jesus, give them opportunities to serve alongside mature believers, and be with them as they wrestle with difficult questions.
What are some ways you are pouring into the next generation?