Thus the dilemma I faced as I prepared to stand before 300+ youth and adults and give the sermon for closing worship at the Massanetta Middle School Conference last week. As the keynote speaker I'd been in the habit of talking to them a fair bit. But what more was there to say? So I was grateful when a friend offered up a little gem for me to chew on: think bigger than this one conference, Steve. Tell them what you want them to hear about themselves. Speak your heart. And that's precisely what I did.
Four thing - four things that I want the youth of our church to know:
1. YOU ARE NOT JUST THE CHURCH'S FUTURE, YOU ARE THE CHURCH'S PRESENT
It always baffles me, and slightly irritates me, when I hear well-meaning people refer to youth strictly in terms of being "the church's future" - as if at some undetermined point a switch will be flipped and they'll instantaneously go from being participants and observers in the life of the church to suddenly leading it. We need them to know that now is the time to grab hold of the leadership reins. Which means, of course, that we have to start letting go - and there's the rub. "Youth on the session or on our committees?" someone once remarked to me. "I'd sure hate for them to see some of the things that go on there." Hmm. Perhaps the better solution is not shielding our youth from seeing something that shouldn't be there anyway, but bringing them on board to help us change things so that stuff isn't there to begin with.
2. YOUR VOICE MATTERS
It was last summer when I experienced a 6th grade girl pony-tailed girl who, through a voice all her own, showed me how much her voice mattered and how much the church needed to hear it. That was confirmed again last week at Massanetta around the lunch table one day, when a casual conversation with some of our youth leadership segued into a heartfelt discussion about the denomination's recent General Assembly actions and how their respective churches were dealing with it. I heard both hope and angst around the table - not only with what was happening in their congregations, but the ways in which they were or were not part of the conversation. We need our young people at the table to lend their voices so our dialogue will be that much richer.
3. YOU REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Going out on a limb here with a broad declaration, but more and more it seems to me that the church's worst enemy these days is not a culture of secularism but a culture of ambivalence. Nothing can change. It doesn't really matter anyway. Our young people are right at that critical point of looking at us and deciding if we're worth their time and investment. So as the church grants our young people a place at the table, we need to make sure that it's more than simply a seat. It needs to come with a voice and the empowerment to do things that actually matter. If they sense all they're getting is a token position, we've lost them already.
4. YOU ARE ALWAYS, ALWAYS LOVED
One of the workshops at Massanetta allowed folks to anonymously name and claim their fears, and one night during our leadership devotion the workshop director shared some of them with us. My heart broke as I heard so much confusion, angst, pain - and, running through them, the very real fear that they may not be accepted for being themselves. In a society where our young people are constantly judged and valued for what score they made on a test, how fast they run a mile at practice, how well their college essay is written, and how much what they wear is in style, the church is in a beautifully unique position to tell them over and over again that they are loved not for anything they've done but just because of who they are - and, more importantly, whose they are.
So those are the four things I shared with the youth in my closing sermon. What about you - what things would you tell them, if you were given the chance?