“Investing in our young people is important, because they are the church of tomorrow.” It’s a phrase for which I wish I could have a dollar for every time I’ve heard it said in the church. As a young person growing up in the church, I used to hear the “saints” and “elders”, even pastors from the pulpits exclaim this, and I felt a little proud to be part of this demographic—it told me I, as a young person, could one day have a big influence on the church. That maybe, when I was older, I could be like those saints and elders that I admired and had watched teach Sunday School classes and work behind the scenes in the oh-so-important tasks that keep the church gears turning. But now, I hear this phrase with less eagerness to embrace it. Now, instead of feeling excited when this seemingly innocent little saying surfaces, I find myself reaching for the “rewind button”, wishing those words would just sneak back into our mouths unsaid. Here’s why: I don’t think that young people, teenagers, are the church of tomorrow. Rather, they are (or at least should be) very much the church of today.
See, what we don’t realize is that, in calling our teens the “church of tomorrow”, what we’ve inadvertently told them is that their day is yet to come. For now, their place is in the youth room, eating snacks and playing games…leave the “real work” to the adults. Maybe, we’ve communicated complacency in what we meant to be an endearing compliment. We believe in the “church body”, but we’ve unintentionally amputated the little toe, or the fumbling foot, or the not-yet-proportional-arm! And we wonder where our volunteers are! We wonder why the body just doesn’t seem to be all that it could be! If teens are only the church of tomorrow, the church body of today is sorely lacking. Because vital, vibrant parts of the body are relegated to “tomorrow”—until they’ve outgrown their awkwardness and stubbornness and unpredictable-ness.
Think of where Israel would be, if the young David was deemed “not quite ready” to serve as king. Did he mess up? You bet! But that didn’t stop God from putting him in charge! Or think of Mary, mother of Jesus. Sure, she was a teen mom, a “statistic” in our day, but there was something about her heart, that God chose to work His miracle through her. Think of the boy with the lunch in John 6, whose lunch was used to feed thousands! We always imagine this was a kid, but think about the food he had—FIVE barley loaves and TWO fish! This isn’t the lunch of a 6 year old! This is the lunch of a growing adolescent! Perhaps, though scripture doesn’t clearly say, this miraculous meal was provided by someone the age of the “squirrely seventh grader” sitting at the end of your pew. See, God doesn’t marginalize youth…He loves to give them a spot in the great work He does in His people and His church!
Researchers and churches are scratching their heads wondering why so many young people fall away from the church after graduation. But perhaps the sobering reality is that they left the church because they failed to see that they were the church. They were told, in not so many words, that “we’ll start treating you like one of us when you’re older, so stick around ‘til then and then we’ll let you in.” They were, often, part of a “club” their family voted them into at birth, yet they never really understood their role in it. Graduation only offered an easy out.
Teens, like all of us really, want to belong. They want to know where they fit in, and what they’re expected to do to fit in there. But this requires us to give them places to fit, recognizing there will be room to grow. Is allowing teens to serve a little tricky? Absolutely! Do they always do things the way we want them to? We wish! (And all the parents reading this echo a resounding “Amen!”) Do they understand all the ins and outs of the church world? Of course not! Yet this is all the more reason we as the “older church people”—the sanctuary sitting, know-how-to-sit-in-a-sermon-without-fidgeting, tithing, voting members of the church—need to allow our teens to serve (and simply exist) alongside us! Who else can better teach a teen to teach, than a veteran Sunday School teacher? Who better knows the dos and don’ts of greeting, or ushering—yes even making coffee and running tech—than those who have been in the trenches for the long haul, week in and week out? If we hope to be an effective church, we must rally the troops—ALL the troops—to head into battle arm in arm, regardless of age.
Church, let’s stop calling our teens the church of tomorrow, and recognize them for what they are—just as much the church of today as you and I.
Jessica Folz, Youth Minister