“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.”
These words from 1 Timothy 4:12 were the touchstone of my years in youth group, church camp, and youth leadership in my denomination (United Methodist at the time). It was on t-shirts and posters, in songs and messages preached beneath a cross beside a bonfire on the shore of a lake in Northern Michigan.
The message we heard so often – that the children are the future – was contradicted by this radical idea. We were not the future of the church, the future of faith, the future of our culture. We had things to say right now, in the present. We could – and must – live our present lives in such a way that we become an example for others who share our faith.
The challenge was figuring out what that meant. For the adults around us, it often seemed that in order to set an example, we needed to behave and believe just like them. Our language and dress, our music and the way we engaged with the world around us were suspect if they varied from their expectations.
I see this in churches all the time. We want the young people to come. We want them to volunteer and to be involved and to connect with the church, but we want them to do it on our terms. We want them to come, but not to make a lot of noise or mess. We want them to contribute, but only if their contribution follows our traditional way of doing things. We want to set an example for them, without recognizing all that they have to teach us.
This example-setting thing is a two-way street. We have much to teach our young people about our traditions, our faith, and how we have connected with God throughout the ages of the church. Teach them about why you choose to dress more formally for church (showing respect for God and God’s house, showing that it is worth a bit of extra effort, whatever your reasons are), but don’t look down on them when they show up in jeans. Perhaps they dress comfortably because they believe that you should bring your whole authentic self to worship. Perhaps they want to connect their Sunday selves to the rest of their reality.
Teach them about appropriate behavior in worship. Encourage them to stand when we stand, to sing when we sing, and to participate in corporate prayer, but don’t look down on them when they are doodling or coloring during the sermon. Perhaps they need to keep their hands busy in order to keep their ears open. You’d be surprised at what they are absorbing. Maybe a bit of coloring would even help you on those Sundays when you can’t quite keep your eyes open.
Teach them about the beliefs you hold dear. Teach them about the way you were raised. And listen to them when they tell you about how different the world is today. These kids are living in a reality so foreign to our experiences. I am not yet 40, and I cannot believe how different the world looks to my children than it did to me. There is so much more pressure, so much more anxiety, so much more connection…and yet, so much less connection. It’s confusing and fast-paced, and often terrifying. There is so much noise and shouting to be heard and jockeying for position, and there is so little listening.
So, most importantly, teach them that you value them. Teach them that you love them. Teach them that you welcome them exactly as they are. Teach them that you want to hear what they think, and that, even if you disagree, you will respect their thoughts as their own. Teach them that their gifts and contributions are not only wanted, but desperately needed by the church. Learn from them about acceptance, about service, about laughter, about being goofy, about loving in diversity and listening in difference. Learn from them about speaking out, about refusing to accept the way things have always been. Listen to the youth. Give them the space to lead. Allow them to show us what they believe and how they connect. Give them space to make mistakes and stumble. Lift them up so they can continue on their path. And follow their example.