The challenge is to love them
How can local churches best support their young people? A response by Gavin Calver
I was never an angel in church youth groups, and I had a partner in crime called Danny. We would do our best to disrupt anything for an easy laugh and were a youth leader’s nightmare. Never really malicious or aggressive, we were certainly cheeky. Danny and I would always turn up to everything together and if possible we’d try and lead others astray. Every church has a Danny and Gavin, but very few know quite how to handle them.
I remember one Sunday morning arriving at church youth group and being greeted with great hostility. Granted, we were a little late, but the situation wasn’t
that bad. We were told in no uncertain terms to go back to where we’d come from and were officially banned from attending for six months. There was some garbled justification to do with thinking about our actions, but by this point we’d closed our ears to anything the teacher had to say. What an interesting method of trying to keep young people in the church. We were being forced out! I clearly remember turning to Danny and saying, with as much meaning and authority as I could muster, “I hate church!”
I really believe that if we’d had a decent relationship with our youth leader we would have been far more reluctant to breeze in late. Without such a relationship, we couldn’t have cared less. I think the best possible way for churches to support their young people is through relationship. We all know the greatest commandment is to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ but what comes next? ‘Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22:37-39).’
We start by loving God, then we love others better. If we build real relationships of genuine love and care, our young people will know where to come when they are struggling. They won’t be thinking about ‘Church’ but rather about the people that give a stuff about them. If we start with rules, we might as well empty the pews now, but if you begin with love, then boundaries are introduced later on.
Young people go through so many changes in their teenage lives and the constant support of parents and adults who love them, gives them a place to call ‘home.’ They live in a rapidly changing nation facing constant emotional, physical and mental changes - their struggles with identity and belonging must be huge. Take for example, the huge adjustment they face from primary to secondary education. The child who has a clear identity, some level of acceptance and a place to belong, at primary, must now venture out into the daunting new world of the secondary school. It is an enforced stepping out of one’s comfort zone to enter into what can seem at the time like a den of lions.
They have to decide who they want to be. Many of the ways in which they behave in the early weeks of secondary school will set patterns that they will be unable to free themselves from for the rest of their schooldays. There were three people in my year at secondary school that behaved like cretins at the start and never quite shook off that reputation for the next seven years’ of education. You are desperate for people to like you, so will go to any lengths in order to achieve this. The move may require a complete change of public persona. At primary school, one lad had been perceived as one of the cool crowd where life was fun and free. When he went to secondary school it changed drastically: among a far bigger crowd of people he was no longer so good at football, and neither was he seen as cool. For him it was nearly soul destroying.
This is one area that the Church can really support their young people. Firstly by being aware of all the changes happening for them and secondly noting the issues of self esteem that can arise. I suppose the greatest thing we can do is provide a committed listening ear – that can be enough, but also pray hard for their protection, for good healthy relationships and for their families as they walk through these changes. If we can be the consistent support for our young people they will see that even if people at school don’t care who they are, God does. Even if they are not accepted in the playground, there’s another context outside, called the church; that will accept her wholeheartedly.
It saddens me that so many young people leave the Church and therefore give up on God. Surely if we want the Church of Jesus Christ to continue 30 years from now, we have to find some way to meet in the middle? The challenge is to love young people enough that they meet Jesus and want to have a life-long relationship with a Living God who loves them more than we ever could.
The Revd Gavin Calver is a Baptist minister and National Director of Youth for Christ, a charity that works with over 300,000 young people a month in places such as schools, prisons and churches.
Adapted from Gavin’s first book Disappointed with Jesus?: Why do so many young people give up on God? Available from www.yfc.co.uk or www.amazon.co.uk
This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Together Magazine