Seriously. They aren’t.
Last week, I (with four other adult leaders) had the opportunity to spend five days on the streets of Skid Row, working alongside and training 17 incredible young people from all across the United States. They all came to Los Angeles for the express purpose of being trained to be leaders in the YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) program, a youth service learning ministry under FOCUS North America. These young people were unbelievable.
Before they arrived on Wednesday, few of them knew one another, but by the time they left, they were clinging to one another, loving each other with a love the source of which could only be the Kingdom of Heaven. For five days straight, they cared for one another, listened to each other, embraced one another’s eccentricities, and lived in a community full of acceptance and loving confrontation. They told the truth with love, and they even showed us leaders a thing or two about what it means to be member of the Kingdom.
The group was comprised of many different personalities and quirks, but for some strange reason, they all seemed really to like one another. Friday night, one of the young men demonstrated for the group his fine ballet-dancing skills. He truly is a gifted dancer. While I was excited at the prospect of watching him dance, I must admit that there was part of me that feared how a ballet-dancing young man might be perceived. I admit that it was my human weakness that assumed these young people would ridicule him. To my delight, however, they were enthralled by his ability. After he finished his dance, he was flooded with praise, hugs, and requests for instruction on how to execute such difficult dance moves as he displayed. As I watched this, I thought, “This isn’t normal.” While any other group of young people might have mocked a young man for being a “ballerina,” these ones embraced him.
The youth also had the opportunity to lead the rest of the group in various capacities, briefing and debriefing certain aspects of a YES trip. As we gathered around these new leaders and listened to them speak, it struck me how talented, spectacular, and well-equipped these young people are for leading ministry. Of course, I was not alone in this realization; the program director and the three other adult leaders all agreed with me, even adding unanimously, “They are better at this than we are!” These young people demonstrated the love of the Kingdom and leadership skills better than any other group of people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They were kind, loving, considerate, repentant, forgiving, and deeply passionate about the ministry opportunities that they were given. It was unbelievable.
But why was such a thing unbelievable? Doesn’t it reflect a deeper insufficiency on our part that such ministry by youth is considerably exceptional? I had to ask myself why this wasn’t normal, and I was left only with more questions.
How often do we speak about young people as though they are the objects of our ministry? Those for whom we must do something? How often do we say things like “Young people are the future of the Church” or call them the “leaders of tomorrow?” After this weekend, I take issue with these things.
Young people are not the objects of ministry; they are ministers themselves. They are not the future of the Church; they are the Church’s present. Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow; they are the servants of today.
Our theological stances shine forth all too brilliantly when we think this way and use this kind of verbiage. By leaving young people to be the inheritors of a faith or the leaders of the Church tomorrow, we eviscerate the Gospel of its power today. We thus imply that leadership is something that is simply developed along with facial hair, social standing, or relational/vocational commitment, but when we do this, we buy into the heresy that the Church is headed by strong leaders who are somehow remarkable, rather than by people inspired by the true head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is true that young people need formation in order to become the leaders they are meant to be (adults need this, too). But if we look throughout the Scriptures, we see time and again that the Lord chooses the most unlikely people to be his voice and his servants.
The Lord calls the young Samuel in the middle of the night. St. Paul encourages his young disciple, Timothy, not to let anyone look down on him as a leader simply because he is young. David, a teenage shepherd who was too small for the armor of Israel, who kept the Lord’s people out of bondage to the Philistines by striking dead the giant not with swords and spears, but with the Name of God.
Young people are called to prophetic ministry within the Church. They are called to be participants in what the Lord wants from us. Yet we often treat each young person as if he or she is a tabula rasa which we must fill with our agenda, our thoughts, and our way of doing church. When we tell them they are the leaders of tomorrow, it becomes to easy for them to respond, “Great. See you tomorrow.”
Is it any wonder that they leave? Our rhetoric says that the Church needs them, but our actions and way of being with these young people says otherwise, and they are wise to it.
We need to stop thinking about how we can get young people to our events. We need to stop treating them as if we have all the answers. When we do this, we will probably be shocked to find out that when it comes to Gospel and Kingdom living, they are better at it than we are. We should focus our efforts not on instructing teenagers to dress, talk, and act like Christians, but we should instill in them the reality that they are the ministers of the Lord in this broken world. Though they aren’t clergy, they have a priesthood, and they must be invited to participate in the work of the Lord; this is true Church life. When we do this, I’m certain that we will be shocked at the results.
So, no. Young people are not the future of the Church. They aren’t the leaders of tomorrow. They are God’s chosen ministers and ambassadors today, and we need to get out of their way.