Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come
I have said a lot over the years to the young people that I have worked with – not always echoing the words from Henri Nouwen above! Almost five years ago now I moved into a new phase of ministry life – I am in reflective mood. I have been thinking about when the things I have said have actually made a difference . . . . when have my words actually helped? So – this is my list of top things to say to young people ::
1. I believe in you. This needs saying! Even the most confident (outwardly) young person I have worked with has been racked with self doubt and a certain level of self loathing, not believing in themselves or what they can do or become.
It is important because it gets to the heart of what things are about, the words “I believe in you” build a young person up – but, they cannot come from nothing. You can’t say these words to a young person you do not know – they are not general words of encouragement – they need to be directed at a young person you really know.
They are – as all people are, not just young people – at times incredibly frustrating, ridiculous, lovely, a pain, a nightmare and hilarious . . . but then, you say these words.
The words say more, they say, “you can do it”, they say, “I am FOR you” and they matter incredibly to young people. So often our focus in youth ministry can be – “HOW on EARTH can i get this young person to BELIEVE in God!” There are a lot of things wrong with that statement . . . but, essentially, it is hard to believe in anything if you are not sure that what YOU believe makes any difference or matters – that is partly human nature, but it is off the richter scale with many young people.
Having personal confidence and having personal dignity and just valuing themselves will make such a difference as they consider eternal truth and the claims of Christ. “I believe in you” is powerful and helpful – but, it also needs to be said when you actually DO believe in them – you see a spark, a light, a bit of steel, a determination deep within that young person that maybe they do not see themselves . . . a bit like Jesus seeing something in Peter as he looked at him and said, “follow me”.
2. I don’t know. Of the four things i am mentioning – this one is the most difficult of the four (at least, for me). A youth worker is often seen by the church, youth group, parents (and themselves?) as THE answer. And, the one that knows the ANSWERS – the one that will solve the “youth problem” the church is facing, the one that . . . you get the drift.
From a young persons perspective – when there is trust and relationship, we are also the ones that they bring their unanswerable questions to :: “why didn’t my nan get healed?”; “why this . . . “; “Why that . . . ” and also, “Where does the Bible say . . . ?” We have two problems if we don’t simply say “I don’t know” when we don’t know.
The first is obvious, we are not being honest and our young people will suss that out fairly swiftly and trust is damaged – trying to blag our way through with a cobbled together load of nonsense just isn’t real or right! Secondly, we are not OWNING our lack of knowledge, we have bought the lie that we are the answer and – even if we don’t know – we should! Well, no actually. The longer i have been involved in youth ministry the more I have realised i do not know stuff – in fact, there seems to be a SCARY amount of stuff I do not know.
We need to be honest and say it when it is true. It is also liberating. It frees us and also our young people. There is a great work written, scholars think, in the 14th Century – we don’t know who wrote it and it is aptly titled, “The Cloud of Unknowing” . . . there is an understanding in the book that to know the deep things of God takes a lifetime, not only do we “not know”, but – in this finite life, there are things we “cannot know”. It is a mystical work, not dissimilar to “The Dark Night of the Soul”, by John of the Cross . . . this unknown author – again – we think wrote a final work called, “The Book of Privy Counselling“, in this they wrote,
Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labour, but love, full of rest.
It is not love to pretend we know when we do not, it is not love to make our faith one of simply “easy answers” . . . if we want to effectively disciple young people then there are times when we will need to say, “I don’t know”.
3. You are Loved and Forgiven. Number 2 was the hardest (i think) for a youth leader to say . . . this one is the hardest (i think) for a young person to believe. It links with number 1, as we tell young people they matter, what they do counts . . . we tell them also that they are LOVED with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).
One of the toughest things to communicate to young people is that they are loved and forgiven because – firstly, if you don’t love yourself it is hard to believe that anyone else can love you. There are massive issues in our culture for young people right now – mental health problems, self harm and image problems, relationships, how young people view sex and sexuality as they are bombarded by unhealthy and unreal images of beauty and prowess and the pressure to achieve and attain at school and college and university . . . life is tough and many (adults too) feel a failure trying to navigate these challenges as a Christian.
We have somehow communicated an untruth in our explanation of the gospel – on the one hand, Jesus has died for our sin and rescued us and redeemed us – making us right with God – once he has done that though, the pressure appears to be back on “us” or – our young people – to then “live this out”. They can’t and don’t – it is not possible.
It is sad that i so rarely hear good teaching on Romans anymore! It absolutely nails it from chapters 5 – 8, taking us through what Jesus has done on the cross and the being “dead to sin, but alive to Christ” . . . why is this so important? Because we have to live our lives “in the Spirit” (Romans 8) to be fully alive and be trusting, not our own strength to help us live as Christians – but to trust the Holy Spirit who is at work IN US!
It is not be force of will that i resist temptation, it is in the power of the Spirit. We can miss all this stuff out in our teaching and somehow imply to young people that “now they are Christians” they should be able to obey the commandments and live like Jesus. Messing up becomes cataclysmic in this scenario! But, “i’m supposed to be a Christian!”, how can i have messed up . . . ?? Because you are a human being, because you are trying to “live” your life with Christ in your own strength . . . more so, when our young people mess up – they can descend into a spiral of criticising themselves for their failure, continuing to tell themselves negative things, go round in circles – asking for forgiveness even, but not receiving it (or rather, not believing they have been forgiven – because they can’t forgive themselves) . . . all pretty messed up – but, what we teach and model shapes our young peoples expectations of themselves – and also – their expectations of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives!
As youth leaders, do we live forgiven, restored, redeemed and free lives – or are WE racked with guilt about past mistakes, not forgiving ourselves and so finding this whole area a tough one to talk about and model to our young people? Jerry Bridges, in “Pursuit of Holiness” says this,
We’re more concerned about our own “victory” over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve God’s heart.
Think about that for a moment. Somehow, even when we are coming to God to ask forgiveness we can still make it about ourselves – more concerned that we haven’t been able to “beat” something, than that we have grieved God’s heart.
Our lives, in Christ, are no longer our own! We are HIS – we ARE forgiven, we can boldly approach the throne room of God, true “repentance” means to head in a different direction . . . our lives are now GODward rather than Inward or focused on what we want and desire . . . yep, this is all big stuff to unpack. But, if we cannot ALLOW God to forgive us – because we don’t believe we deserve it, we have totally missed the Gospel.
Lets help our young people grasp this and truly live in freedom, mess ups will happen – just look at the life of Peter (especially after He has received the Holy Spirit at pentecost, throughout the book of Acts he does some amazing things for God – and, messes up and gets it wrong too!) . . . our young people need to know their worth, they need to know there is nothing they can ever do to separate them from the love of God, they are loved now and forever – they also need to receive His forgiveness when they confess their sin. We need to teach them the truth about themselves and what God has done, that helps them to do this . . . .
4. What do you think? Teaching young people how to think for themselves is critical if we want to make life long disciples. Do they believe what we say the Bible says simply because we are saying it?
Think of the answer to a child who asks, “why?” and the reply they might unhelpfully get, “because i said so!” We cannot disciple like this! It isn’t discipleship. Jesus had some great dialogue with his disciples and asked them what they thought. The classic example is when they are discussing who people think Jesus is . . . and Jesus basically says, “thats great, people think this – people think that – but, who do you say i am?” (Mark 8:29) . . . er, um yes, well . . . then Peter steps up and says it!
Jesus recognises it is the Holy Spirit that has enabled Peter to get there . . . in saying it though, Peter then discovers who he is and who is to become . . . thinking stuff through and yes, reaching our own conclusions prayerfully under God – is what many of us do as adults – we need to teach discernment to our young people, but this is very different from deciding for them!
It is the difference between teaching and telling – a difference brilliantly illustrated by Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, chapter 2, as he highlights the attributes of “teaching” without dialogue and questions,
the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
Just to pick up on one phrase above, the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher – in this I think of charismatic leaders who simply expect young people to emulate them, to believe and trust in them (which is not the same as putting their trust in Jesus) and, actually, there is an illusion of personal faith – but it is built upon another persons faith – rather than the faith of the young person, they don’t believe something themselves, they believe something is true because the youth leader has said it . . .
A questioning, exploring faith – as Jesus encouraged in the disciples leads to the young person working out their faith – developing their relationship with God, it is interesting that we theologically and doctrinally believe that (as Paul puts it), “there is one mediator between God and people.” (1 Timothy 2:5), and yet – so often in practice, we can introduce an additional mediator, the pastor, the priest, the youth worker . . . we MUST create conversation and dialogue as we explore faith together with young people . . . “what do you think?” tells a young person their view matters, “what do you think?” gives a young person a chance to accept or reject what they are hearing, “what do you think?” gives a young person permission to share their view, “what do you think?” is following Jesus’ example . . . and, for me in my practice – i have been challenged and inspired in my faith as young people have answered that question.
So there are my four key things to say to young people, there are obviously other things! I have just found that these four have born fruit more than anything else i might have said or done in my youth work practice . . . give them a go!