Mar 31

Don’t look down on young people, look up!

My wife and I were on an aeroplane recently on our way back from a wonderful weekend city break in Rome. We were coming back on a flight which was packed with what was obviously an Italian school trip to London, and our seats were just behind them. I immediately turned to my wife and said,”Great! We are going to be where the fun is!” and I genuinely meant it. if anyone was going to enjoy the flight and make it entertaining for others, then surely it had to be 20-30 teenagers.

Don't look down

Image courtesy of kangshutters / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Our seats were almost the back row of the plane so we had to wait quite a while as we slowly made our way down the plane to our seats as different passengers stowed hand luggage in the overhead lockers and found their seats. Getting to the back, we discovered, takes a long time! This didn’t bother my wife and I particularly as there was no rush. However, it did annoy the people queuing behind us. We got to within four or five rows away from our seats where we found the teenagers milling in the aisle, putting bags away and making sure everyone had the correct seat. The man behind made a sarcastic comment, presumably to his partner, about how the teenagers were oblivious to others wanting to get past, intimating that they were acting selfishly. I turned and said, “They’re just making sure that they are sitting next to who they want to”, which I meant as an explanation but he took this as a sarcastic response and replied,”yes, because that’s so important.”

We finally got past, and then it was our turn to hold people up as we tried to stow our luggage away. But this couple were having none of it, and pushed right past us to take their seats. I wondered who was truly acting selfishly.

This experience got me thinking about why is that so many adults seem to have so little time for teenagers. I am concerned that so many of us look down on young people without realising it, therefore alienating them from our communities and churches.

An important verse of Scripture for me has always been 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

When I was younger, I felt this was a direct command to me and so I sought to be the best example of a living Christian that I could be. I got involved in my local church as much as I could and looked for ways to share God’s love with those around me. As a youth minister, this verse set the tone for my ministry. I wanted to build up a generation of young people who were not kept out of sight of the rest of the church, nor were they treated as big children, but enabled them to be seen as emerging adults, who need proper respect.

Of course, this verse has two angles to it. Firstly, there is the direct message from Paul to the young leader, Timothy, about ignoring the ways people put him down and to, instead, set an example to them of what it means to follow God. The second angle is that there is a reality that those older than Timothy were looking down on him and this is the challenge we still have to face in our churches today. How easy it is to treat young people as irresponsible, untrustworthy, as big kids. We can do this by giving young people roles in church life which we wouldn’t give to adults, such as leading actions in a children’s worship song, or doing a drama sketch in a service. Now, of course, there are times when these can be good but often I wonder if we give young people these roles because we want to include them but we don’t trust them with anything ‘grown up’. We can call those who run our children’s group ‘children’s leaders’ but if a teenager wants to help out, we call them ‘junior helpers’. So they are not seen as leaders but helpers, and junior ones at that!

There seems to me so many ways in which we patronise young people without even realising it. We send them out to be in their own group because we think they wouldn’t want to be in with the adults. But maybe, this communicates that we don’t think they are old enough to be with us, where the real action is.

I met with a bunch of young people recently and was chatting with them about how they would like their church to be more inclusive of teenagers. My final question to this wonderful group of people was, “what one thing would you like the adults in your church to know about young people?” Immediately, a lad piped up with, “tell them to stop looking down on us”. I asked him to expand on this and he told me how he feels that young people are just treated as big kids. They are expected to be in the same Sunday morning groups as five and six year olds, and aren’t being allowed to grow up. Woah! There’s a massive challenge to us adults in the Church. Are we patronising young people without even realising it?

I run a Growing Leaders course every year for teenagers. This is a fantastic time and I get to meet some wonderful Christian young people, who God seems to be blessing with leadership potential. What frustrates me enormously is that we can spend a year investing in their leadership development and then at the end of the course they have no place within their own church fellowship to grow this leadership gift, simply because they are too young. There are plenty of places outside the church where they will get leadership opportunities, whether that’s at school, a sports team or a community group. Our reticence to nurture young people in leadership is one massive reason why so many young people leave the church. They don’t feel like they have anything to offer the church (or nothing that’s wanted) and so look elsewhere for their personal fulfilment.

We need to change. We need to give proper value to young people. We must seek forgiveness for the ways we have been impatient with teenagers, looked down on them and not treated them with appropriate respect. God is in the business of using young people to speak to his people. If we don’t listen to teenagers, maybe we might be missing out on some of the things God is wanting to say to his Church.

In what ways can young people be looked down upon in your church? What do you do to purposefully give value to teenagers? Please leave a comment below.