Jesus loved teenagers. How do I know this? Well, his first disciples were teenagers. You’d think that Jesus was intentional about the kind of friendships he made. They were the outcasts, the looked-down-on, and the disregarded in his society.
Young people today fit that category to a tee. In my experience, their voices are often the last heard when it comes to how we do Church. By and large, we have waited for them to “make it” to adulthood before we allow them space to influence our churches. But why?
I believe that the Church needs to embrace young people. I am sure many others do too. But if I was honest, I would say that outside of the typical youth group programme and events, there isn’t much in the way of young people being included in the life of their churches.
A problem of our own doing
In the decision-making, discerning, and discipling, young people are missing in action. This is not even by their own doing either. We purposely have designed church and ministry in this way.
We have separate church services, worship bands, small group nights, etc. We don’t include them on eldership, we don’t include them “on stage” (unless its in the worship band and we know their playing ability is adequate enough to not screw it up).
But Jesus tapped them on the shoulder and said “come, follow me”. So, what would happen if we were more like our Saviour? What would we look like if we listened and acted upon the cries of our young people?
As I once heard it said, the young people provide a “prophetic angst” that the church so desperately needs to hear. What would it mean for us to hear and act on this prophetic angst of our youth?
Wrestling with God
A couple of weeks ago my young people hijacked the usual Sunday night service. I have been journeying with my senior students for most of this year. They wanted to lead a service. We were given that opportunity by our leadership and jumped at it with two hands.
I told the young people “What is it that you as a teenager have to offer the church? What is it about following Jesus for you that you can present to the church so that they can be encouraged and challenged?”
All year we had been talking about what it means to wrestle with Jesus—to bring to him all that we are—our doubts, struggles, and deepest yearnings. And so they asked to do a panel.
There were two questions that I asked the eight of them: (1) What are the struggles of young people? (2) What kind of church must we become to embrace young people and their struggles?
The struggle is real
“Porn”, said one of my youth, “young people are struggling with destructive behaviour from addictions such as porn”. To say this, loud and clear, as a young person in a church, was stunning. Even he admitted beforehand that “I can’t talk about that in church”. Yeah, well… he did!
This led to the rest of the panel opening up about issues around sex, self-worth and other hard topics that young people face today. After the service I received the common refrain “we knew that this is what they faced, but to actually hear them say it… we felt it!”.
Our voice is silent
One youth spoke about the kind of church we should be: one that embraces discussion about the hard topics of life. For example, we had recently held a church discussion around the proposed Euthanasia Bill. About a third who attended were young people! And they contributed to more than half of the discussion time.
Another youth added a stunning refrain: young people can search for answers on their iPhones for most things. But when it comes to what God, Scripture and the Body of Christ have to say about things… we are mostly silent.
This was a sombre and challenging reminder that the Church needs to engage in conversation with young people because they ALREADY are having conversations about these topics! We either jump in (“without knowing the answers”—as one youth declared), or we opt out and sit on the sidelines as mere spectators.
Love is our language
Throughout their responses it was very clear that acceptance, kindness, and love, were at the root of what they were getting at. How can we become this kind of Church?
By entering into relationship with people in all of their real-ness. By allowing our own selves to become people in all of our own real-ness. By embracing vulnerability. By acknowledging we are all broken and weak people.
Gen Z is the latest generation, our young people, and if we want to know how to reach and engage them with the Good News, we must take serious their concerns. Are you willing to take up the challenge?
Caleb Haurua is a young dad, a NZ Warriors supporter, and Youth Pastor in Central Auckland. A proud Maori & Cook Island man, he gained his Masters in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College and has been in ministry since 2017. He loves to openly muse about things in articles like this one.