Listening to Youth, Developing Leaders, and the Church of Today

Written by Robbie Cansler for The Foundry Community:

Those who knew me as a teenager would probably agree that I was loud, outspoken, and passionate. Everything I did, I did with fervor, and I hated being dismissed because of my age. The barbs that were constantly thrown in the direction of my peers and I only seemed to fuel our intensity to be seen as people with a voice in our own right.

We all had 1 Timothy 4:12 memorized. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” I would often come up with crazy-seeming ideas for the youth group to lead in this type of example, like-all night prayer meetings (we actually did this). We wanted people to know we had something to contribute to our faith community and to the world at large.

When I studied youth ministry in college, we talked often about how teenagers aren’t the church of tomorrow but of today—just like everyone else. We talked about how, if we didn’t take teens seriously and become a place of belonging for them, they would find other places to fulfill their need for community. These discussions—while sanitary in a classroom, we knew would quickly become messy in the real ministry world, but we were passionate college students with a heart for teenagers, and we knew they had a voice and a rightful place in the church.

As a youth pastor, I found many of my presuppositions about youth to be true. They live up to what we expect of them, and they are often much smarter and more aware than we give them credit for. When I asked one of my Sunday school classes once what they would like to study, they quickly voted on an in-depth exploration of the book of Judges. They didn’t want fluff, and they didn’t expect faith to be easy. They wanted to wrestle with hard questions and see what happened on the other side. This might have been because, despite being young, they were dealing with hard questions in their own lives.

While in one youth pastorate, I walked the youth group through two different parental battles with cancer, one passing away while I was there, and having to answer questions like, “If we just pray hard enough, won’t they get better?” We had to wrestle with what it means to come from places of abuse and neglect. We wrestled, cried, and prayed when a classmate of theirs stabbed her little sister to death one morning.

Their world and experiences filled them with hard questions. They knew what theodicy was without ever once hearing the term or taking a seminary class—because they witnessed it in their lives, their friends’ lives, or on the news. They knew what racism was—because many of them witnessed or experienced it firsthand. They knew about gang violence, drug use, and immigration issues—because these were issues they had to confront.

Did I mention this was in the suburbs?

Now that I have moved to an urban area and work as a substitute teacher—often with middle school and high school students—I see many of the same questions and struggles. They know what it means to live in poverty. They know what it means to have friends, classmates, or community peers killed in acts of gun violence. But they also have incredible insight.

During the 2016 presidential election, I had profoundly informed conversations with high school students. When I asked if they were going to vote, they told me time after time that they weren’t old enough yet—which I kept forgetting because they continued to surprise me with their grasp of current events, justice issues, and the ways they got involved.

Every year one of the high school’s Bible clubs in our city puts on a huge Thanksgiving meal that serves hundreds of community members. This event is in addition to a myriad of other ways I see students involved from Socktober (collecting socks for homeless individuals), to food drives to toy collections to prom-dress swaps for their classmates and community members in need.

Just like I wanted to be taken seriously as a teenager, and just like I once wanted to change the world, I see teenagers today doing and wanting the same.

If history and my time in youth ministry have taught me anything, it’s that if we aren’t a place that is willing to listen, teenagers won’t stop talking; they’ll just stop talking to us.

It isn’t a new thing to be critical of youth. The trend stretches back decades, and there are plenty of sociologists who have studied the topic and will do it more justice than I could, but it is now mygeneration joining the voices of those who criticize the young.

I’ve seen it, especially in recent days, as teenagers have participated in various protests around the country and have worked hard to have their voices heard. It seems the members of Generation Z (or whatever they will choose to call themselves in the future) are not exempt from the bashing that so many generations have received before them.

However, the saddest bashing comes from the church and its leaders—which, sadly, is also not new. From the criticism of drum sets in church to wearing pants in the tabernacle at church camp (this was a real struggle in my teen years), older generations find reasons to criticize the voices of teenagers, often without even listening.

But, if history and my time in youth ministry have taught me anything, it’s that if we aren’t a place that is willing to listen, teenagers won’t stop talking; they’ll just stop talking to us. They will take all of their passion, their desire for change, their hurts, their angst, their joy, and their talents, and they will find places where they are listened to and wanted. They will find other places, even if those places aren’t healthy. Telling teenagers to stop talking only serves to shut down the conversation between generations, and it leaves the church without the teens who, yes, are the church of today.

Teenagers have a lot to say, and despite what the older generations will tell you, much of it is good and deep and needed and helpful. They take seriously words like those found in 1 Timothy, and they want us to be open to them and to their ideas. The church is better for having youthful voices speak into it, better for youthful hearts bent toward justice, and maybe, just maybe, if we are open, they could teach us how to be better too.

If we listen, they will continue to talk. If we give opportunities, they will continue to lead. If we help them to find the ways in which their passions and stories fit into the great mission of God, they will show up and serve in ways we never thought or imagined.

I encourage us all is to stop writing tweets and status updates and even cracking in-person jokes that criticize these new and developing leaders. Instead, take a family with teenagers from your church out for lunch, and ask the teens what their thoughts are on a variety of issues—and listen. Volunteer at a boys and girls club, YMCA, or other after-school program that can help you see young people as more than a generalized label. Volunteer in school cafeterias. Show up at events that teenagers care about. Offer to help your youth leader or pastor with youth group events.

If we listen, they will continue to talk. If we give opportunities, they will continue to lead. If we help them to find the ways in which their passions and stories fit into the great mission of God, they will show up and serve in ways we never thought or imagined.

We need each other. So may we put aside our labels and listen.

Originally posted on The Foundry Community. View original post.

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