Youth Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. There is a different spirit in the air among those who gather to worship. Certainly it is the same Spirit that is present in all of our worship, but when Youth take over the service, there is a different energy in the room.
Youth serve as the barometers of culture revealing the fault lines of society but also pointing where God is at work in the world. They are like prophets who recognize the passion in communities in which God’s fidelity, transcendence, and communion with them take human form. They have been entrepreneurs, leaders, and revolutionaries. They have also been exiled, outcast and marginalized. And our youth are no exception.
I’m reminded of these powerful words by Rodger Nishioka, Senior Associate Pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. He wrote this to his church, but I think these words ring true for us as well:
“Youth are the future of the church.” I understand and affirm that. But I am troubled when that is the only thing adults have to say about young people. The truth is that while young people are the future of the church, they are also the church today. I worry that when adults only talk about young people being the future of the church, it means they are not seeing youth as the church right now. That is a problem. Young people are keenly aware when they are being overlooked and dismissed by adults. They are keenly aware because while some may send signals to the contrary, the truth is that youth are desperate for adults who are genuinely interested in them and willing to take them seriously.
Several years ago, I was invited to read and critique a doctoral student dissertation out of the University of Rochester that was at once hopeful and terrifying. The researcher was asking questions about resilience among adolescents, and she hit upon a formula. She interviewed young people and asked them first to think about the worst possible thing they could imagine themselves doing. Then she asked them how many adults would still love them if they learned that they had done this worst possible thing.
Through her research, she hit upon a number. She argued that unless the young person could name a minimum of five adults, chances were good the youth would be either dead or in jail before their 21st birthday. She called it the “resilience factor.”
The next Sunday night at youth group, I asked the youth to think about the worst possible thing they could imagine themselves doing. I did not ask them to share it out loud. Then I asked them to count the number of adults they believe they could tell they had done this worst possible thing and the adults would still love them. I remember there were four adult leaders in the room including me, so I thought it would be easy for all our youth to get to five adults. You can imagine I was stunned when several of the young people said they could only think of two adults.
Later, when the adults met together, it was clear to us that while we thought we were conveying to every young person that we loved them unconditionally, several were not getting that message. Since that time, I have made it a point to say to young people entrusted to my care that there is nothing they could ever do that would stop me from loving them. I want every youth to have a list much greater than five. I want for every young person what God desires for them --- to not only survive but to thrive!
I read this and wondered about the youth in our church. How many of them could point to five adults in their lives and know they are loved unconditionally. It’s why I’m so grateful for the leadership of Emily Frandsen and Susan Dukes, two members of the church who offered to step up at a time when our youth ministry was in flux. I’m thankful the growing number of volunteers that give of their time each week to teach Sunday School, lead a small group on Sunday nights, show up on Wednesday nights, show up at sporting events or show up at school plays…who just show up. That’s the most important aspect of a youth program, not flashy programs or a charismatic youth director, but a church that is willing to show up, be present and be engaged. We hope that you will show up to Youth Sunday this Sunday and show your support, your love that our youth so desperately need to see!