One of the very first posts that I ever wrote was titled, "Why the Church Needs Teenagers (And Why You Do, Too)." I shared the importance for why your church or organization needs to include the voice of teenagers in its overall direction and culture.
The key question, however, is how does this practically, systematically, and structurally happen? How do we as youth workers and leaders persuade our communities to put into practice these very ideals?
Just a few short years ago, as a 16 year old, the leadership of my church thrusted me into a position of power and authority by encouraging me to preach a half dozen times throughout the year. They recognized a gift within me, and they assumed that I would have something to say that the rest of the church needed to hear. As a result of this decision, two consequences occurred:
First, the pressure and inexperience of the task of preaching actually squashed my true gift and ability for speaking and teaching. High school juniors should never be allowed to enter into the pulpit and assume its full rights and privileges. Being asked early on reinforced my inexperience, and thus, it placed a bad taste in my mouth for it. Only after one of my seminary mentors recognized and coaxed me to pursue it, I began to take steps forward toward cultivating my ability - almost 10 years after the fact.
Second, the church began to actually devalue the role of teenagers. I could not live into the expectations of a seasoned pastor as a 16 year old kid. Conversely, our church gained very title to nothing from my points. Rather, this situation only served to widen the chasm between the adults and students in our community. My lack of 'performing' (though I thought I did quite well for someone my age) proved to our adults once again that teenagers should have no voice at the table. Their place belongs in the basement with a few balls and some pizza.
I want to argue that teenagers do in fact have place at the table. But it needs to be in the right seat.
My adult self agrees with the response of the adults who heard my 16 year old self preach. As soon as I walked on stage, I can imagine that the adults sitting in the congregation thought, what does this kid know about my life? How could he possibly speak to my condition. And they were exactly right.
I admire the audacity of my Pastor. He recognized a gift in me, and rather than fearing it, he gave me an opportunity to grow in it. But as he gave me the reigns of leadership, he placed me in the wrong seat - one that actually harmed my development and altered the course of my trajectory.
Obviously, he did not intend for this to happen in a malicious way, but it happened nonetheless. Our pastors and leaders and youth workers need to learn how to place teenagers on the right seat at the table. Here are 4 suggestions for doing so:
1. Allow teenagers to lead alongside of other equipped and experienced leaders. Every now and then, I muse about where I would be if my Pastor had let me teach alongside of him or with him rather than ahead of him. Teenagers have no business getting in the chili of their adult parents and friends. A teenager, however, does have every right to share about the redemption and hope that she or her has experienced, especially in light of the developmental principles, as I discussed in my previous blog post. Pinpoint the gifts and abilities of a teen, and pair that kid up with an experienced and knowledgeable person in leadership. Then, witness the relationship blossom.
2. Give teenagers an intentional, controlled area in which to develop their leadership ability and potential. Think small groups. Those in our churches who have the most thriving walk with Jesus are the ones who are discipling others. Why? Because they own their faith. The one leads into the other. Typically, these folks have wrestled with their faith and intentionally arrived at a level of security within their faith. At Anthem (our high school group), the teens who have flamed out in their faith almost always comes back to life when they are placed in a position of disicpleship - often with kids, which leads me to my third point.
3. Teenagers make the best kids small group leaders. I have seen this come true time and time again within my ministry. A couple of years ago, one of our high school seniors began flaming out and making unhealthy choices. He believed in Jesus, but had not yet owned his faith. And he didn't need to. Faith was spoon-fed for him. A while back, one our children's ministry leaders asked him to co-lead our Christmas Eve production (step 1). He was given the task to assist the Production Leader with teaching kids in early elementary the songs for the program (step 2). A few weeks into the process, I noticed a radical change in him. He told me that he was enjoying the opportunity to play with kids and introduce them to the fundamentals of faith. These kids not only discovered Jesus in him, but they considered him their hero. In our culture, teens merely serve the image of their parents. From time to time, our teens need to be the hero in the lives of others in order to understand the heroism of God in their our life.
4. Engage teenagers with the cause of mission. I think that all of the previous 3 suggestions either culminate or ultimately arrive at their fullest expression when teenagers engage in the mission of the church. When all of the characteristics of adolescent and emerging adulthood development combine, it ultimately favors the mission of the church. Teenagers believe they can change the world, so let's send them to places like India and Mexico and let them. They can endure the hardships and physical demands of living in undeveloped countries, so let's send them there. Moreover, they are innocent and not yet tainted by the plight of human poverty. Let's expose them to the humanity of it before they become jaded by the overwhelming systems and principalities of our world.
It is imperative that we integrate adolescents and emerging adults into the life of our churches and communities in a healthy, intentional, developmentally-appropriate way. Not only for their sake, but most of all, for ours.
Question: What have you done to integrate your students into the life of your community? How has this impacted the culture and direction of your community?