Here is one of my old guy rants that may sound like “what’s wrong with the younger generation?”, but in fact is a “what’s wrong with our leaders?” I stop for coffee just about every morning at a local shop, and while it is always busy, it is still a comfortable and cozy spot. This morning, however, a youth group had taken over the main area, pushing tables together and pulling all the available chairs to their enclave (even though half of them were empty). The noise level from this table was overwhelming, drowning out casual conversation and making it all but impossible to read (which is my normal ritual). These things I found mildly annoying, but what really blew me away was what the young people were saying, the attitude behind the words, and most appalling of all, the complicity of the middle-aged youth leader sitting with them.
The course of the conversation moved from bad-mouthing fellow students, replete with name-calling, put downs, invective and slander, to blasting teachers which resulted in a frenzied plan of vandalism against one teacher in particular. The youth leader’s response to this heated plan of attack was to offer to drive the van when the plan was to be carried out! Not once in the conversation did the youth leader challenge any of the unkindness, never did he ask a probing question or offer a grace-filled alternative. Some of the things the young people were saying about their peers was hurtful and heinous, and the leader just laughed along with the kids. When the talk turned from ill-will to acts of destruction, not only did the leader not push back, he joined right in. I am a strong proponent of meeting young people where they are, but I hesitate to think it is proper to leave them there, let alone join them.
This experience sparks in my some reflection on what kind of leadership we need to build bridges with the non-churched populations with which we interact on a daily basis (as well as the Christian community in place that we fail to guide).
- what is our touchstone? — a touchstone tests the quality or purity of a substance or thing. What is our touchstone? What standards do we hold one another accountable to as we promote Christian growth and maturity? What are we hoping to help people become? What attitudes and behaviors will we challenge to help people grow and mature?
- how will we shepherd? — is our job just to mingle with the sheep or are we guiding, directing, prodding, nurturing and leading to greener pastures? When we see our charges — young or otherwise — straying into dangerous territory, what is our role and responsibility? The care and feeding of young faiths is important work, and helping those newer to the faith to discern the differences between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is crucial.
- what is our witness? — how are we modeling the attitudes, actions, and practices we hope to encourage in young believers? Just as there are sins of omission, there are also powerful blessings of omission — refusing to enter into gossip, backstabbing, mocking, insulting, cursing, and mud-slinging. Modeling a respectful, kind, generous, encouraging and affirming worldview can be a mighty witness to counter the behaviors deemed acceptable in a broken and dysfunctional world.
- how are we different? — when I studied young spiritual seekers, one of the most prevalent desires was connection to a counter-cultural community operating by Biblically based core values of tolerance, acceptance, decency, compassion, love, gentleness and sacrificial giving. When our leaders do not offer a counter-cultural option for young people, why should they ever bother changing, growing, progressing or becoming better than they already are?
I am not saying that leaders with young people should be perfect, but I do believe we owe it to the kingdom/kin-dom of God to provide a better way. When we encounter toxic and destructive words, behaviors, and attitudes, the very least we can do is confront and challenge. There are some basics that should just be universal givens: (think fruit) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — not to mention mercy, compassion, grace, tolerance, caring and sharing. This isn’t rocket-science. Being good, being kind, not doing harm — these are the things we have to offer young people in a contentious, dangerous, and often unkind world.