Today’s youth ministers are working with a generation called the “Millennials.” Technologically advanced and highly motivated, these teenagers – like every generation before them – have cultural considerations that must be evaluated to understand their motivations. Possibly most defining, Millennials are more comfortable with technology than we are. As the first generation to grow up using the Internet and cellular technology, they are efficient at communicating and innovating with technology. Teenagers today use technology to connect with each other in a secret code that the adults and authority figures they desperately want to avoid cannot understand. This provides more avenues for marketers to get in touch with teens without the parents’ filter.
Millennials have a different attitude about school than my Generation X. Like the technology that makes their lives instant, Millennials want to be the top of the class immediately. This entitlement can be attributed to parenting; Millennial parents are ensuring that today’s teenagers are highly-scheduled and successful. This reaction is often understood as a reaction to Generation X’s teenagers’ absent parents. Millennials are also the generation that questions school authority. They were in the classroom during Columbine – Millennials were the first generation to see that high school may not be safe (Info from The Perennial Mellinnial, a.k.a. Blake).
While technology, entitlement, and the drive to succeed make Millennials a unique generation, Today’s young millennials, like teenagers before them, are still kids. They are still emotional and they question authority. It can be difficult to be patient and see God in today’s teens, but the nature and purpose of the divine is there.
Teenagers can be overly expressive and excited. I used to get annoyed and chalk this up to hormones, but there is another reason teenagers seem to scream louder than most. They are making sure we hear them.
From the very beginning, God knew that we could be a stubborn bunch. Look at the Tree of Knowledge. God set one simple rule and human curiosity challenged it forcing God to take extreme measures to ensure it did not happen again. This altered history. Sometimes the gentle wind of the spirit may come in a whisper. But the Israelites knew when Yahweh was trying to make a point. Sometimes God would scream.
Paragraphs upon paragraphs in scripture describe the precise building and rebuilding of the Tabernacle, and the fear, awe and power of the Ark of the Covenant. King David was moving the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen carrying the Ark shook it. When Uzzah touched the Ark to steady it … he was immediately struck dead. Now that’s screaming.
In The God-bearing Life, Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster remind us of what we can learn from Moses’ ministry and apply to youth ministry. When Moses was summoned to speak for the Lord and lead the Israelites to freedom, God brought a burning bush to get his attention. In a time before virtual realities and movie effects, fires were pretty awe-inspiring. God used extremes to shout “Hey! Listen! I have an idea, I don’t think you are going to like it … but I need to say it anyway!” How often do the youth we work with have the same message?
Without teenagers in our churches looking to be heard, what would we miss? It is the nature and purpose of God to speak out for and represent the least of these. Oftentimes, teenagers, not yet jaded and cynical by politics, stereotypes, or generalizations, can more easily see all humans as creations of God. There are times we don’t listen to their views until they scream or take extreme stances. Maybe that’s why they shout! Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster share more thoughts on teenagers’ extreme emotions and spirituality:
“Speaking the truth in love, for example, is an important way teenagers minister to the church. Undeveloped ideological filters – the kind that help you and me screen out certain emotional stimuli—contribute to the emotional roller coaster of adolescence. Teenagers have trouble sorting through lesser emotional claims in favor of primary ones; every emotion is primary to a teenager. This emotional openness has an upside: It helps teenagers tune in both to God and to other human beings in ways adults have long since forgotten. Consequently, youth can be prophetic voices in the wilderness who call us to respond on God’s behalf to people we would otherwise overlook.” (The God-bearing Life, 116)
There is no doubt that Jesus questioned authority. He looked at the culture around him – the dishonest leadership and the misguided values – and he questioned it. Jesus constantly went back and forth with the Pharisees and Sadducees with rhetorical questions and loaded answers. When Jesus returned to the temple, he turned the tables in rage. Today’s generation is no exception. Teenagers today question all authority figures from their parents to their teachers to their first bosses to their ministers.
And when Jesus needed a community, did he turn to leaders and the authority? No. He rallied a group of ordinary men to take on an extraordinary task – to recognize, practice, and evangelize the need for God’s love. While technology, attention at home, the quest to succeed, and questioning of authority have given Millennials many traits that leave youth ministers challenged, it also has given a wonderful gift. Millennials are the first generation to be extremely informed about up-to-date global crises like global warming, pollution, human trafficking, and genocide. Millennials are teenagers, but their use of technology has given them virtual pen pals all over the world as well as access to quick information and breaking news. With this access and knowledge of global tragedies, they yearn to seek justice and love kindness. Teenagers’ quest for social justice has been squelched since the Industrial Revolution and high school’s beginnings. We are seeing a recent resurgence with global injustice awareness due to the proliferation of the Internet.
Without teenagers to question authority and keep us balanced, the risk begins for our churches and families and communities to remain in a pattern doing things ‘because we have always done them that way.’ Teens question the need to continue with tradition.
Eleven-year old Atlanta native Jonathan McCoy is making a decision for the rest of his life. He is making the commitment to never use ‘the n-word.” He has made a pledge, gone on sermon and speaking tours, and is making a commitment as a child to never say this word. It all started with a speech contest where McCoy’s speech about these convictions won first place. A quote from McCoy from CBS News: “According to the definition of the n-word, an n-word will never be a lawyer, a doctor or a teacher,” said McCoy, “It is implausible that 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that we still use this word that holds no worth in our lives and our future … I say, ‘don’t use the n-word.’”
Saying you will never do something is an extreme stance. But McCoy truly believes it. He has the energy, passion, and confidence to guarantee his promise even more so because he is young. Paul taught us that the passion of youth is an asset. He reminded us to “get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.” (1 Timothy 4:11-14, The Message)
Today’s youth have an abundance of gifts demonstrating the nature of God within them. As part of the Four Areas of Focus, The United Methodist Church wants to “raise up young leadership.” This is no coincidence. A congregation is thriving when youth are a part of it. The church staff may not be able to control or predict the path and mission field a young church will take, but youth bring life to a church because they bring God’s purpose to look for justice, to yell from the mountain tops for what is right, and question ‘tradition for traditions sake. Thanks be to God!
I am sharing all this because tonight Husbanks and I are chaperoning the Austin-area youth lock-in. I needed a little pep talk to get myself ready to confiscate illegal substances at 3:00 a.m. I can find God in these kids, and I should help these teenagers discover and strengthen the Godly traits they already possess. Thanks be to God!
No but really, pray for us. Sheesh.