By Stephen Rankin
When you encounter that squirrely twelve-year-old from the youth group, who do you see? Just another kid or an adult-in-the-making? It is easy to think in conventional developmental terms about what a twelve-year-old needs from the church “right now,” at this particular stage in life. Of course, it is good to think that way, but we also should envision that twelve-year-old, and the seventeen-year-old, and the twenty-one-year-old as a spiritually mature disciple of Jesus Christ, a fruit-producing member of his Body.
Keep that twelve-year-old in mind as you consider these scriptures:
We will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord… (Psalm 78:4).
Recite [the words of the Shema] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise (Deut. 6:7).” In other words, make teaching our children part of daily life .
And what you have heard from me through in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well (2 Tim. 2:2). Notice the lineage: Paul to Timothy, Timothy to faithful people, faithful people to others. If ever there was a glorious picture of generations working together to embody and share the Gospel, there it is.
Keeping in mind the aims expressed in these scriptures, the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Task Force on Youth and Young Adult Ministry has undertaken its work. It is made up of eleven people from four countries, all having extensive ministry experience in the relevant areas. We ourselves span the generations, a mixture of young and old. We have extended our work into three sub-groups that bring more people into the effort. We are confident that the combined wisdom of all these participants will set us on the good and holy path of discipling the rising generations for the fullness of God’s eternal purposes. It is a holy calling.
I have the privilege of convening the task force and marshaling the gifts of its members. I have been involved in higher education for twenty-five years as a college professor and campus minister or chaplain in two United Methodist-related schools. Prior to working in higher education, I served as pastor of congregations for twelve years, including a stint in Italy in an expatriate congregation. As a college student and a bit beyond, I worked in youth ministry. In one way or another, I have taught every age level from elementary school to Doctor of Ministry students. There is nothing more exciting than watching a young person’s eyes light up as God’s calling on her or his life dawns and the significance of that moment hits home.
A story I recently read offers a good example. It shows how important it is for us to see our work with youth and young adults as an integrated whole that helps young people meet Christ and move into adult forms of commitment and service. A college that I know well has developed an initiative for high school students that they call the Summit. It is a weeklong summer event for students recommended by their church leaders. It is more than just a summer camp. It builds in a discipleship process that goes with the students as they return to their local churches and continues through subsequent experiences and practices. College students serve as Summit leaders, which means that high school and college students interact with one another in mutually edifying ways.
One high schooler who came as a participant returned for a second and then, in the third year, became a Summit Guide. (That is part of the design, to develop students along a path of increasing challenge.) The whole experience moved him to start an effort related to his interest in running. He led the way in his home community to sponsor an annual race that raises money for kids who would like to compete in cross country and track, but who don’t have the money to buy the necessary shoes (they are expensive!). That student is now attending a university in another state and running for their cross-country team. His is a story of how God’s grace works through simple acts of obedience. God gave this student a vision for how he could use his gifts for God’s purposes. That realization is a major step toward becoming a mature Christian disciple, which is a central aspect of the Summit’s design. It illustrates the importance of taking the long vision with teenagers.
In addition to the youth and college students I have already mentioned, a team of adults makes the Summit work every summer. The vast majority of them are lay people who have caught the vision for investing in the rising generations and who gladly share their love for Christ and their gifts. And they are not(!) simply doing the “behind the scenes” support work, though they do that, too. They are very visible in the student experience throughout the week. They engage directly with the participants and share from the gifts that God has given them. See the picture? High school students, college students, and adults (post-college or otherwise) working together show what God does through people fully committed to the rising generations.
Thus, we get a glimpse of a desperately important principle. In Christ, the generations come together for mutual encouragement. The older ones give their lives to the younger ones and receive back God’s wisdom and gifts from the younger ones! For a teenager or a young adult to have a real relationship with an older Christian in which she can see that person’s life and listen to that person’s heart is of inestimable value. Our society has tended to divide us from one another according to ages and stations in life (e.g. married, single). Whereas there are certainly important age-related needs, a movement seeking to live the Gospel in fullness will encourage the generations to spend more time in fellowship with each other across those generally artificial divisions. That is why the scriptures at the beginning of this piece stand out so prominently. The more we ponder them, the more we see the importance of the older generations investing in the rising generations.
I have entered my “senior season” of ministry and, as older people often do, I can’t resist telling a story. I was a handful of years into my work with college students. It was our regular Wednesday college chapel. Students were leading the worship and before I went up to preach, I was standing at the back of the room. For a moment, I scanned the scene before me and saw students that I had come to know well. They were standing, completely absorbed in singing praises to the living God. Some had their hands in the air. As I gazed, God spoke: “Your job is to pour your life into these students.” It was a precious moment for me, but I think also paradigmatic. We are called to invest in the rising generations, to help our young people become fruitful, joyful, grown-up, sold-out followers of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. Our task force is committed to this goal.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin is an ordained elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. He serves as Chaplain and Minister at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.