IT WAS the end of a Christian youth festival. The lights had come up in the venue; so there was no longer any way of hiding just how sticky and sweaty we were after several hours of jumping and dancing, combined with a week’s worth of few showers and general camping grime. But the faces of my young people were shining.
Over the course of the week — and even on that night — they had encountered Jesus. It was an amazing privilege to be with them in those moments, to see them grow in their faith, and also grow in confidence in who they were. When young people are realising that they are valuable and loved, this is wonderful to behold, and it made that week’s lack of sleep and stench of sweat undeniably worth it.
Helping to lead the youth work at my church, and its forming part of my job, is a privilege. I collaborate with youth workers, paid and voluntary, who have, in some cases, decades of experience. They work very hard for very little glory, and yet are instrumental in some of the most transformative moments in the lives of the young people whom they encounter. So what do I, as a youth worker, wish the Church knew about youth work and young people?
First, the whole Church needs to be involved in the discipleship of young people. Often, people have a specific image in mind when they think about youth workers: they should be young (check, although up for debate); and they should be cool (no check, sadly). But it is the job of the Church collectively to come alongside young people, to invest in them, and to show them what a life lived with Jesus looks like.
Young people are not the Church of tomorrow, they are the Church of today. To dismiss them as being just for the youth-work team to deal with sends the message that they are not full participants in the life of the Church. We need to involve them, discern their gifts, and take risks by letting them have a go. They come with a particular way of seeing and expressing things, without the inhibitions of older generations. Yes, it can be unpredictable, but there are gems of wisdom in what they see, say, and do.
The discipleship relationship is reciprocal: young people learn from what the rest of the Church teaches and models for them, and we
learn from their creativity and fresh eyes.
Second, young people can sniff out inauthenticity a mile off, and that can turn them off church. How can we expect them to really believe God is with them during tough times when they come to church and every conversation goes “How are you?” “Fine, thanks. How are you?” “Fine, thanks” — especially when they know that things aren’t fine? We do young people a great disservice when we pay lip service to God’s goodness.
One of my young people called me out on this recently: “You keep asking us what God’s been doing in our lives this week, and yet you won’t say what he’s been doing in yours.” That stung — because they were right. We need to share our lives with young people (appropriately, obviously); we need to demonstrate to them what it means for Jesus to be with us in everything.
Third, we need to hold in loving and accepting tension their resilience and their brokenness. It is hard to be a young person. School, friendships, hormones, parents, social media, and worry about the future — the pressures that young people face today can seem insurmountable. They are fantastically resilient at times, and this is to be lauded; but they can also be overwhelmed by it all, and the growing rise in mental-health issues among young people is testament to this. With everything they have to deal with on their young shoulders, we need to show them grace.
Sometimes, they will be grumpy and monosyllabic, but that behaviour is not confined to the young. They will make decisions that have their youth leaders banging their heads against the wall in despair; but, when that happens, it is important not to write them off, but to keep on loving them. It is important to see the vulnerability masquerading as bravado; and, above all, we need to like them genuinely as well as love them.
And what do I wish my young people knew? I wish they knew just how much our Church loves them. We may show this love imperfectly at times, but I can promise them our love is indisputable.
Hannah Barr works for the international children’s charity Viva, managing its UK-based initiatives, and also helps to lead the youth work at St Clement’s, Oxford.