I don’t like having things done to me. Like my dentist who wants to drill into my teeth with the most annoying sounding drill ever created. Or my physio always wants to cause me pain, always assuring me that I will feel more sore tomorrow. And while we have high levels of appreciation for them, no one likes going to the hospital and having all sorts of things done to them by nurses and doctors. Having things done to you is generally not a positive experience.
I find it fascinating to hear so often that such and such a church has a ministry to youth and young adults. Or how I often hear people talk about the ministry they are involved in to young people.
While people may not mean much by this type of language, it is actually very telling. It shows that young people are not very important to you. This type of understanding and language actually communicates disconnection. It is something you do “to” them over “there” so you can come back over “here” and get on with your life or get on with the other ministry of the church.
It is a way of thinking that removes young people from where they should be in our lives and in our communities and puts them in a place where we can do things to them and then let them go. We can have a certain amount of detachment from them. We don’t have to get to involved in their life and things don’t get too messy. We have clear boundaries of when we invest and when we care and how much we expose ourselves to them, and when that time is up, we can go back to how we like it, where things are easy and safe.
If your church is doing ministry to young people, it could be possible that you are missing the point.
Wouldn’t it sound strange if we talked about Jesus doing ministry to his disciples. Or even talked about Jesus running a program to grow his disciples in their faith.
If Jesus ministered to his disciples the way that we do much of our ministry to young people, I’m not sure how long this whole Christian thing would have lasted.
What Jesus models to us (and even more powerfully, what God models to us in Jesus) is incarnation. A coming and being with. A taking up residence in our world and in our lives. A coming alongside of and living with. A oneness, a unity. It was messy and frustrating (Matt 15:16) and discouraging and exciting (Matt 11:4-6). But it birthed the kingdom of God in the disciples.
If you or your church wants to be most effective in ministry to young people, it does not need a program. It cannot afford to do ministry to them. What it needs is a willingness to open up the life of the church and the lives of the individuals in the church to the messiness that is young people.
If you’re a parent, you understand that having children around is messy and frustrating and exciting. That there are moments of despair and grief and moments of pride and joy. But you gladly go through it all because you want your children to thrive in life.
Our churches need to recapture the understanding that it is our responsibility to adopt the young people in our church into our spiritual families and live with all the mess that comes with this. Anything less is not true discipleship. It is about giving them space, and permission and a voice in our community just like we would our own children in our homes. It’s about nurturing their gifts and talents and potential and doing everything we can to help them succeed. It’s about sacrifice and laying down our life so that our children have the best chance of thriving in faith and life.
David Sawler in his book, ‘Before they say goodbye’, says
“A church will only experience long term growth when it lays down its life to reach, disciple, and parent its own young…. When it does what Jesus did for the disciples.”
Whatever opinions or arguments you have about how important the traditions and rituals in your church are, nothing can ever be more important than the young people in your church and in your community. This is your first and most important priority as a church. If we as a church can’t do this well, then I think there is not much else in the great commission we can do well either.
It is time for the faith of our young to become a focus of our communities. Does this mean we neglect the elderly and only do worship and sermons for kids, youth and young adults? No. It means that we understand that God’s church is best expressed as a family who loves and serves each other and invites each other into their lives as an act of discipleship. We grow an understanding that the prayer of a 6 year old boy is just as powerful and nourishing for the community as the prayer of the 60 year old elder.
This means as a church we equip the entire family to fulfil its mission to be the body of Christ. We call and equip those more mature in our community to live a life that does not do ministry to young people, that does not get involved in a program with young people. Instead we call and equip them to live lives that invite young people into their homes and their families and their joys and their struggles and their faith. That helps young people encounter the embodied and alive Christ in the lives of each other.
This is the type of life I believe Jesus called us to when he called us to make disciples. He called us into the mess of life, and he called us to invite others into that mess as well, so that we could see together all the strange and amazing and ordinary and joyful ways that he turns up every day.