Sunday, February 23, 2014

Youth Are Not the Future: Four Cliches to Eliminate in Youth Ministry

Youth pastors and all who work with youth are way too familiar with the well-intentioned remark, usually delivered by some precious elderly member of the congregation, "youth are the future of the church."

I am not the first to say it's time we retire this phrase or at least add the jargon to the great hall of fame of phrases that mean well but do not sit well with teenagers. The suggestion that youth are "the future" assumes their role in the present is not what counts. What counts is what is yet to occur, when they grow up. This is when they can really contribute. After they learn the language, rhetoric, and corporate lingo of the institutional church they are then charged to preserve the future of the church's property, polity, and assets. But right here, right now, that's nothing compared to the future. Right now they are to be tamed and trained and taught to be nice, good, kind, and not take too many risks that will jeopardize theirs or their parents' dreams of future success.

Yet if the same sort of remark was made to the older populous, only in reverse, I am not sure the sentiment would be appreciated. What if a teenager said to an older member of the congregation after a morning worship service, "The elderly are the past of the church?"

That's precisely the point of Micah Bournes' brilliant spoken word piece, "I Am Not the Future."

So next time you hear, or worse, are tempted to say "youth are the future," politely respond with an alternative. Suggest the possibility to the contrary, "I love youth because they are the present, which makes for a beautiful and hopeful future God is beginning right now."

Then dare youth to dream about how God may be calling them to practice the dreams of God in the here and now. Spur them to act in the present, refusing to wait until the future to follow Jesus as extraordinary witnesses of love, justice, peace, and promise to make all things new and right again.

While we are at it, here are three other phrases, cliches, and terms to retire when working with youth:

1. Calling youth "students." If we truly believe youth are not defined by what they do between the bells of their middle or high schools, we should probably cease to refer to them as students. Call them what they are, "youth." There is nothing wrong with embracing their identity as young people. Actually, there is everything right about it. Jesus didn't say the kingdom of God belonged to students, but children, youth, young people whose significance and worth is all too often limited to what they do or fail to do as students. See a great piece on this by Andrew Root, "Stop Calling Them Students"

2. Youth Volunteers: This one is a pending post, "We don't need more volunteers," which is not to suggest we do not need support or a variety of folks to contribute time, talents, and energies. Rather, the title "volunteer" suggests donating time to an organization and people not your own. What youth ministry needs are those who are willing to view youth as their own, as those who belong to their family of faith. When you serve in youth ministry you are not acting as volunteer, but as one committed to living out your baptismal vows or living up to promises made to the very kids you witnessed being sprinkled with the sacred waters. Consider these alternatives: mentor, leader, partner, worker, etc.

3. Any name for a youth ministry that stems from assumption of all adolescent life being high energy. Think "Fusion," "High Voltage," "Kaos," or use of acronyms like "TNT." Instead of these cheesy and lame titles most youth hate anyway (and the artwork that goes on related t-shirts), find clever ways to introduce the biblical story and identity God has given to us all. This way, when they share about the ministry, they also learn to communicate the good news. Our ministry is called "Imago Dei." I have a friend who named his ministry "Poiema,'" based off Ephesians referring us as God's "work of art." These names and others refrain from generalizing youth, excluding more introverted youth, and also prevent adopting violent and destructive metaphors already pervasive in adolescent culture. They also sound way cooler, too. And they do not have to be in Latin, either.

What are some other sayings worthy of dismissal from youth ministry lingo and praxis?

*Image above is from the famous graffiti artist, Banksy: