Listening to our Youth

1.2 million followers read Emma Gonzalez’s tweet about Betsy DeVos’ visit to her school; “Good thing I was already sleeping in tomorrow.”

269,000 followers read Sarah Chadwick’s tweet about the same visit; “Literally no one asked for this.”

The New York Times made this observation about these two tweets; “And with a few tweets the students had overtaken another adult official’s narrative.”


My first thought upon reading this observation is “it’s about time.” I’ve spent most of my life in the church in some capacity, so I’ve been dealing with dynamic of adult/youth interaction from several different perspectives.

I was duly elected to our church’s board as a high school junior. I was eager to serve. I thought it was great that the church wanted a representative from the youth group to be on the board, to have a voice in the room. I came to the conclusion that they didn’t want my voice heard as much as they wanted to feel good about saying they had a youth representative on the board.

Much of my focus upon entering the ministry was ministry with youth. I was blessed to serve a congregation who took the voice of youth seriously. I was witness to youth going to border communities in Mexico to build homes with generous support from adults. People listened as the youth shared the truth that our neighbors to the south are children of God and not all that different from us.

That’s one story. There are others that aren’t quite as nice. I’ve led enough events which proudly lifted up 1 Timothy 4:12, “let no one look down upon you because of your youth” while then sending them back to church and civic communities who made a habit of discounting the voice of youth because they were young. Churches designate one Sunday a year where the youth could lead worship, because heaven forbid they participate in the other fifty-one Sundays. I once had a church leader tell me, “the only thing you don’t do well as a Senior Minister is that you listen to the youth too much.” Two things stood out- first, if that was the only thing she thought I didn’t do well, then she wasn’t paying close attention. Second, I took her well-meaning statement as one of the great compliments that I could receive. I was doing something right.

For too long, the church has not been faithful in listening to the voice of our youth. Youth have a way of showing us what God would have us do and moving us to action. The country is seeing that in the passion and the actions of the Stoneman Douglas students, who are inspiring us to gather and to have needed conversations around gun and school violence. In the space where adults have failed, our teens are moving us forward. Thanks be to God! It’s long past time for our youth to have voice in shaping our narrative and our life together.

Dear Andy, What Were You Thinking? From One Pastor to Another

Andy, I’ve been there.  You are preaching and you are onto something good and the Spirit is moving in you and among the congregation. You say something, thinking it will resonate with the crowd. After the sermon is over, someone reminds you what you said and you think, “did I just say that?” Maybe you did mean to say and meant it how it sounded. That people who take their kids to over 80 percent of the churches in our nation are selfish. That everyone should go to your church or a church like yours. Granted, you started something and started something big. You are one of the founding fathers of the megachurch movement and I understand you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. There is a lot us mainliners can learn from you. Some of what you have done has helped us change for the better to meet the challenge of being a 21st century church.

I know you are passionate about the “next” generation. I am equally or more passionate about the next generation as you are, I’m just not quite as famous. Surely you don’t think the megachurch, specifically your megachurch is the only place children and youth should feel at home. Actually, why do we have to call them the “next” generation when really they are today’s generation. They can tell us what’s authentic and what’s not. My 4 year old  has been walking around our house all week singing songs from their children’s assembly this past Sunday. I wonder how many adults are doing that.

I’m fortunate to serve a church that is large by our denomination’s standards. We are large enough to have critical mass and resources for great ministries with children and youth. We can afford gifted and called youth and children’s ministers, and we have an excellent volunteer team. Not as big as your team of course, but still. We do excellent work with children and youth. They are known. Their teachers know them. Their ministers know them. Volunteers know them. Adults in the church know them. Even the senior pastor knows them. Parents have confidence that there is a village surrounding their kids that is helping to raise them. Get this, when they grow up, they come back. They serve as teachers, as youth sponsors, planting a new worship service, building homes in border communities of Mexico, feeding the hungry. Some have gone out into the world to be missionaries, to work in advocacy, policy making, teaching abroad and in our inner-city. I believe the church played a huge role in these calls on their lives. They were encouraged, prayed for, struggled with, listened to, etc. by those who knew them, knew their life, and could sense their call.

Like I said, we are one of the larger churches. I know countless others, the ones you call small, in our tradition, that are empowering and equipping youth and children like you wouldn’t believe. It’s truly inspiring to see the faithfulness of some these churches.They don’t even have the huge worship production budget and other resources that many of us have. They are simply trusting in the love of God and our relationships through God

My church is all that far from yours. We’ve even had a few of your people become our people. I’m sure some of my people have become your people as well and that’s okay.

We are all trying to accomplish similar things. Share the love and grace of God, transform lives, heal the world, and bring justice and wholeness to our world. I happen to think the “next” generation will do wonderfully at this, whether they are a part of your church or not.

It’s tough as pastors, especially when we are proud of our churches and the ministry they do. But our pride doesn’t have to diminish another’s ministry. I’ll keep that in mind as well. Together, no matter whose building we are in on Sunday let’s work together to continue God’s good work in our midst. Thanks for listening.