The Gospel writer proclaims in John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus, the Light of the World, chose not to reside in a holy temple or a safe, secluded room to fellowship with his close friends all of the time, but to move into the neighborhood offering love, grace, and truth to those he encountered along the way. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to be equipped, formed, and empowered to faithfully love creation outside of the walls of the church building and communities. Those who receive the calling to nurture children and youth to be disciples of Christ have a responsibility to equip, form, and empower them to follow Christ into the neighborhood and meet him there.
In and around our church are children and youth who want to experience abundant life and be agents of healing love in the world. Today, children and youth are bombarded with the harsh realities and needs of the world around them. Thanks to technology, the news of injustice and likewise the opportunity to help a neighbor are only a tweet, Facebook status, or forwarded email away. Without voices of hope helping them prayerfully navigate the daily messages of pain and need they encounter with compassion, faithfulness and love, they can become overwhelmed, depressed, or apathetic.
The adolescent and teen years are some of the most formative years of a person’s life. Leaders of ministries with children and youth have an opportunity to teach and form them in practices that will help them live a good, abundant life with Christ as they choose to follow him into the world.
Study, Listen, Pray, Act
Three practices that are helpful in nurturing children and youth to be agents of love in the world are prayerfully studying the Scriptures, listening well to the needs of their neighbors, prayerfully discerning how God is calling them to use their gifts to meet the needs, and then compassionately practicing resurrection together to the place God is directing them.
First, help them study the Scriptures. As children and youth begin to learn their story of faith, they begin to find themselves in the story and are able to identify the Triune God in the world. The story of God's love for the world becomes the narrative that gives shape to how they see and relate to God, others and themselves. They become agents of hope, possibility, creativity, hospitality, justice, mercy, and—above all—love in a world hungry for all of these things.
The second practice is listening well, which is probably one of the most difficult practices. Too often when seeking to meet the needs of our neighbors, we come with our own agenda, wants, and hopes for them. To love our neighbors is to see them and listen to their stories. Ask them: What are your hopes? What are your needs? How can we be present to you today?
Allow the stories you hear, the needs that are articulated, and sparks that are ignited within the hearts of the young people you serve to inform the way you choose to act. Let the stories shape the projects you pursue. Too often God is invited to join the mission we have designed, when the call is for us to join God's active work of salvation and healing in the world. Spending time discerning what God is up to and how God might best use the various gifts of your congregation to meet the needs in the neighborhood is wise. In this process we become good neighbors and stewards of resources entrusted to us.
Another important practice to teach children and youth as they study the Scriptures and listen well to the stories around them, is constantly seeking guidance for God in prayer. With God directing the life of the work the possibilities of are vast and deep. Prayer is a way of knowing how and when to act, as well as when it is time for something new to be created. Through prayer God sustains the ministry and enables the vision to see Christ in the mundane moments that our "instant action" culture may tempt us to overlook or miss by changing directions too soon.
When children and youth are practicing these things in community together, they begin to practice them in their lives as well. Our churches become communities where children and youth are being formed, enabled, and empowered to discern how to use their unique gifts to meet the hungers and needs of the world with God. This is one of the greatest gifts ministries can provide for young people as they journey and live out of their call to love God, neighbor, and self in ways that bring life.
As a minister who has led ministries with youth and children for the past fifteen years, I have seen how teaching young people to study, listen, pray, and faithfully act together has impacted the communities they are a part of in and outside of the church.
In the summer of 2007, a youth group I was sharing life with at a local church in Nashville, Tenn., agreed to embark upon a Bible study journey together to figure out how God was calling them to be agents of love in the city. They spent the summer practicing lectio divina with Scripture, listening to the needs of people within their neighborhood, identifying their gifts and prayerfully discerning together how God might be calling them to practice resurrection over the next year.
This was not an easy or flawless process. It required commitment of participants beyond the one hour we shared together for Bible study. The youth set up coffee chats and visits to listen to people share their stories and the needs they saw. There were moments of wrestling within the group to let go of individual callings to embrace where God was leading the group. By the end of the summer, however, the group was at peace with a call to be intentional about fellowship and friendship with a growing group of children and youth who were part of the church’s ministry to Thai and Burmese refugees.
In the years that followed, we organized parties, camps, tutoring programs, soccer teams, Sabbath creative play days, and other adventures. It was a gift to watch as the youth who had gone on a number of mission trips outside of the city encountered Christ in their neighborhood, came alive with hope, worked through challenges, and became empowered to live the life they imagined with God in the everyday. As the group continued to study, listen, pray, and act together, God continued to give birth to some amazing moments of life within the community. I watched as youth bore witness to the congregation of what it looks like to meet Jesus in places that are not always comfortable, may require more than we want to give, and will most likely ask us to lay down privileges so others may fully be seen.
This adventure was not without mistakes, disappointments, resistance, or a few messy lessons. There were days I know I turned and said, "Really, God, are you sure this is where we are to go?" The answer was always "Yes," and over time I watched the lines between servant and the person being served get extremely blurry as youth and children became bridge builders, joy deliverers, welcoming hosts, and co-creators of beautiful things with God. When we study the Scriptures, listen well, pray, and act together, God will do some great things in and through the ministry.