Ok, it really bugs me when people say, “The youth are the future of the church!” because, to me, it implies that the youth are not currently active participants and leaders in the church. They might be in the future, but they aren’t now. Or, they are really only semi-members when they join the church; they aren’t really members until they are full-grown adults. There is something fundamentally wrong when we fail to acknowledge the important roles of children and youth in our congregations… today.
So, no: Youth are not just the future of the church. They are the church today. We can learn from them, encourage them, teach them, and uphold them in prayer. And aren’t these the things we do with and for our adult members as well?
In three of the gospels, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me…,” but Mark actually says that he was indignant when the disciples spoke sternly to those bringing the children. Mark says, “But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14, NRSV). I think sometimes, we need to take this idea more seriously. Luke is the only gospel writer who gives us a glimpse into Jesus as a child. Jesus himself was a leader as a 12-year old in the temple. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47, NRSV). Keep in mind: a 12-year old male is also known today as “a Middle School boy.” (His voice may have even changed as he was talking with the adults in the temple!)
Having worked with youth groups for the past 15 years, I’d like to suggest some ways we can honor, celebrate, and serve alongside the Middle School and High School youth in our churches.
1. Sit by the youth in worship. Your presence might mean more than you realize. Instead of asking why the youth sit in the back row or in the balcony, why not go and join them where they are? This simple gesture speaks volumes: Youth matter and their presence in your worshipping community is important.
2. Get to know the youth. Learn about their interests and what they are doing in their school and community. Share your faith story with youth, and invite them to share what being a part of the church has meant to them. Help them to know they have a place and belong in the body of Christ.
3. Invite the youth to lead worship… on a regular basis. This can include allowing them to write prayers, choose songs, and even study scripture and write a sermon. This also includes equipping youth and giving them the tools they need to lead worship, but again, don’t we do this for adults?
4. Provide leadership opportunities and encourage their gifts and talents. Encourage youth to serve on the committees of the church, as well as the governing boards (Session and Deacons for Presbyterians). But beware: you might end up with youth leading the way for a food drive, helping to design and paint children’s classrooms, leading music in worship (and not just the contemporary service), bringing homemade cookies for coffee hour, creating a church logo, or creating a new banner for worship.
5. Encourage youth to lead the way with their fundraising efforts and mission trip planning. Let them provide input and take ownership of their own projects. Yes, they probably do need help and support from the adults, but trust the youth to make some of the important decisions with the adults: How much will we charge? What supplies do we need to buy? How will we publicize? Etc…
6. Give the youth age-appropriate responsibilities. Provide training. Partner with them in ministry. While our youth may not have the skills, knowledge, and experience to create a church budget on their own, we can’t deny their creativity and ideas. And sometimes youth are more able to think outside the box and draw outside the lines than we adults are… and sometimes that’s exactly what we need!
The Middle School and High School students in our churches are a gift to us! May we join them in ministry and heed Jesus’ command to include them.
While we do hope our youth are around to lead the church in the future, let us not overlook them today. The youth are the church, with the rest of us.