If the kingdom of heaven belongs to children and adolescents, then the church must believe and behave as if their presence matters.
When I was in full-time youth ministry I felt part of my job was to remind the church how important children and teenagers are to the health and future of a Christian community. I regularly found myself in committee meetings advocating for the next generation, pleading with leaders to include them. I believe this advocacy was important work for me to be doing, but I regret one statement I regularly used to make my case. I often said, “These young people are the future of the church”. I regret the words because I don’t believe they are true. The children and teens in our faith communities are not the future of the church. They are the church.
There is No Adolescent-sized Holy Spirit
When children or adolescents believe in Jesus and decide to follow him with their whole lives they don’t get a miniature version of the Holy Spirit imparted to them. They are indwelt by the Spirit that fills every Christ follower. This means they are integral, empowered, and spiritually gifted members of the body of Christ. To think of them as anything less could lead to marginalizing them and causing them to feel like they are not as important as Jesus says they are. He’s the one who said “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Believing They Belong
If the kingdom of heaven belongs to children and adolescents, then the church must believe and behave as if their presence matters. Multiple researchers in recent years have accurately concluded that about 50% of church attending “youth group” kids leave the church when they enter their twenties. That’s not a good statistic but it’s also not an inevitability. Equally important research has been done with the 50% that do not leave the church, and conclusions from that research tell an important story. Overwhelmingly the young adults who did not leave the church shared a common experience. They were included. They believed they mattered to the mission of God and belonged on that mission because they were included in the missional life of the church. They weren’t left waiting in the wings until they were “ready” or until they proved they could lead. They engaged in missional life from an early age and grew up knowing their gifts and presence were vital to the church body. This gives us insight as to what the culture in our churches must be. If children and teens are not allowed to be the church, they will eventually leave the church.
Changing The Culture
As stated previously, helping the next generation “be the church” now will likely require a change in beliefs and behaviors:
- When we believe they are gifted by God, we help them serve where gifted.
- When we believe their opinions matter, we include them in decision making.
- When we believe they hear from God, we invite them to tell us what He is saying.
- When we believe they are on mission, we train and release them for mission.
- When we believe they can handle deep truth, we nourish them with theology.
- When we believe God hears their prayers, we teach them to pray (or they teach us).
Where To Begin?
Maybe a good place to start is by thinking of this the way we think about teaching a teenager to drive (which I am doing with my two teenaged daughters right now). Know that they will not do it perfectly. Know that the process is necessary to get to the end goal. Know that it requires more patience than if we just did it ourselves. Know that mastery comes from experience. Know all of these things … but don’t take away the keys! For while teenagers are not the future of the church, they are the future leaders of the church.