FACT: I have the best youth group ever…
If you work with young people I am sure that you would say the same thing about your group! I love the creativity, diversity and integrity within my group, individuals who hide nothing – what you see is what you get. They are awesome!
But if you work with young people you will also be aware that there are those that don’t feel the same about your group. Young people are not always taken seriously, rarely are their views heard and actioned in any real meaningful way and they are often side-lined from the rest of the community.
This is not a modern problem.
“People were bringing little children to Jesus to place his hands on them”.
Parents coming and hoping to receive a blessing for their children from Jesus. They had seen Jesus feed thousands, heard rumours that he had walked on water, perhaps seen him heal the paralysed man or heard some of his life changing teaching and they wanted to share this with their children. Who wouldn’t right?
“but the disciples rebuked them”.
We are left guessing why the disciples acted like this… we know that children held a lower position in society than they do today, they perhaps were not always seen as individual beings but rather as an extension of the wider family. What is clear from the disciples reaction however is that they clearly thought Jesus wouldn’t be interested in them, they thought they had little to offer – no position, power, money or great insight. But what they still didn’t realise – is that this is EXACTLY the kind of person Jesus welcomes.
“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant”.
It would seem he was displeased because the disciples still had not grasped one of the most basic realities of the coming of Jesus: THE GOSPEL, the good news of Jesus is that God is a generous and loving God who gives himself freely and fully to us. He is the loving Father who disgraces himself as he runs towards his children to embrace them. We don’t need, money, or power, position or great insight – the Gospel of Jesus is that he is for us all.
Jesus welcoming the children to himself is an action which embodies this gospel – Children may not have riches or status or power but they know how to accept a gift and enjoy spending time with their farther in heaven. The disciples saw the little children and didn’t see any value… Jesus saw human beings made in his own image who he was about to lay down his life for.
The problem is, like the disciples, our society tends to treat young people as a developmental stage. In other words… we treat young people as human becomings, rather than human beings. We wait until adulthood until we consider them to offer value to society. Young people are projects for developing into adults. Often youth ministry falls into this category as well. But theres this great phrase: “True identity is ours by redemption, not by development” (Kenda Creasy Dean). Jesus encounters, transforms and redeems young people where they are – he doesn’t wait for them to offer anything of value to society – their identity is found in Him not in what they become. As a church it is vital that we treat young people not as human becomings but instead seek to share in the concrete experience of their lives and encounter there the very action and being of God.
Imposing standards of maturity and progress on young people is problematic for our ministry to them, people are ‘human beings’ not just ‘human becomings’.
Our treatment of young people in this way is the result also of living in a capitalist society. Within a capitalist society people are valued (and find their social status) in what they can produce. In his book Family Fortunes John Drane writes, ‘a consumer society values everyone by reference to their productivity- the things we can do, rather than the persons we are… In our throw away society, people can be as disposable as packaging’. It is really important that the church be different in this area! As a gospel people we value other people because they are people – not just because they are useful. The elderly are often victims of this as well as they feel that they no longer have the skills to make a positive contribution, society treats them as commodities making them feel like a burden that has little use.
So how can we ensure that within our churches and ministries we don’t treat people as commodities?
1. Think about how we speak to young people, and encourage our churches to do the same!
If the only things we say to young people are based on achievement we are hindering them from seeing the gospel worked out in their lives. “How was school, what uni are you going too, how were your results, what job do you think you might want to do, you must be busy at the moment revising”. All of these questions embody the idea that young people are in a transitional developmental stage, that they are BECOMING. This is not the gospel. Rather, recognising them through the lens of hopeful redemption, Jesus’ life-giving reality… as human beings, our questions begin to change “what are you passionate about, what is God doing in your life, what favourite game did you play this summer, what kind of person are you?” These are gospel centred questions, because they recognise a human being in front of us who Jesus is meeting with and working in their lives.
2. Think about how we speak to volunteers, and encourage our churches to do the same!
Volunteers are NOT a useful commodity we use to fill up a rota! We need to make a real effort to demonstrate this by asking how they are doing! – showing an interest in their life and what God is doing there. Spending time socially or in worship together without the focus being on what they can offer. When we see them in church is the first we say “are still alright to help out on Friday night?” OR “How was your week?”, “Is your Dad out of hospital yet, been praying for him”, “You free and fancy coming over to watch the game this week?”.
3. Involve the elderly
They are not done yet – even as being youth workers! Get them praying for young people, encourage them to talk with them and get to know them. Why not put on some board game evenings, put on the kettle and get young and old mixing spending time enjoying being people, not having to achieve anything more than that. We have a group of mostly retired people that meet once a month to play table tennis, occasionally this clashes with the youth club – so we join them! Both young and old love it.
4. Seek to empower
Finally, youth work in an embowering activity, it is not our job to put on things for young people but to aid them in having a voice within their community. By empowering them we are demonstrating that God is able to use them in the here and now, our programmes cannot just be about preparing them and teaching them (something we should be doing at any age anyway) the adventure of actually following Jesus and making an impact for his kingdom… starts …. now.