In American culture, young people are prized. They win Grammy, Oscar and Emmy awards, compete for Olympic Gold, fight wars, earn millions and define cool—this, after centuries where they achieved national independence, abolished slavery, pioneered new territories, secured civil rights and innovated new modes of communications, transportation, civic engagement and much more.
From revolutionaries like Nathan Hale, to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, to the student activists who organized 1960s sit-ins; from artists like Eminem and Norah Jones, to athletes like A-Rod and Kobe, to icons like Leo and Britney; from innovators like Steven Jobs, to frontiersmen like Davy Crockett, to Iraqi liberators like G.I. Joe, it seems like everywhere except the Church, young people accomplish big things.
A popular notion has captivated many of our churches and their leaders, limiting the opportunities for young people to make great impact. The alluring yet dangerous culprit is the ideology: Young people are the future.
Too often, this misguided mantra informs our programs, shapes our strategies and guides our teachings, creating well-meaning adults who aim to inspire future greatness at the expense of present purpose.
Few rhetorical catch phrases have been more destructive to the development of our generation than this popular myth. It’s threatening because it’s partly true. (Nicotine is partly relaxing; it’s the other part that’s deadly.) Young people have a future, no doubt, but we also have a present and a past. By equating ourselves with the future, we have inhibited the contribution we can make to our communities, culture and churches today.
Even worse, the myth is patronizing and provides cover for condescension. Despite its sweet sound, implicit in the idea that young people are the future is the idea that adults are today. As a result, young adults perceive that our present realities matter less than those of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations, along with their preferences, judgments, values, hopes and fears.
But the biblical figure of David was not the future when, as a shepherd boy, he was the only Israelite courageous enough to slay Goliath; Esther was not the future when she was appointed empress of Persia as a teenager; Josiah was not the future when he became king at the age of 8; Mary was not the future when God himself impregnated her virgin body; Timothy was not the future when Paul charged him: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (I Timothy 4:12).
Set an example? Resist condescension? Sadly, not in many churches. At least not today.
Why is it that when young people try to be nonconformist trendsetters, church leaders often feel compelled to put us in our place? Rather than embrace us, mentor us and empower us to use our courage to bring light to dark places, we get relegated to margins of the congregation. Marilyn Manson grew up in church. So did Elvis, and Whitney, and hundreds of others whose churches failed to make room for them, except for the occasional choir solo.
In 1996, my wife and I were among a group of 14 young people who resisted the parochial box of a generational label, X, that relegated us to a confused present and a frightening future. Challenged by a pastor who wasn’t afraid to let us fail, we determined to overcome the stereotype and contribute something meaningful to our community. At the ripe old age of 21, I was the senior member of our team, and the oldest involved in its day-to-day operations.
Looking at the realities of our community, the historically impoverished Lower East Side section of Manhattan, we wanted to offer our peers viable alternatives to the streets, and for that matter, to the “X”-box. Despite no money, no equipment, no paid staff and no space of our own, we opened a youth center in the projects and called it Generation X-cel. Seven years later, X-cel operates two facilities, a theater in the heart of the trendy East Village and retreat programs upstate, and has impacted thousands of kids through after school and summer programs, community service projects and neighborhood outreaches. In the process we made scores of mistakes, bent a few common sense rules and learned how to defy the odds.
We were not special, just empowered to make a difference. And we did. It’s time to wake up and smell reality. The future is now. Why wait to embrace it?
[Jeremy R. Del Rio, Esq., is the youth pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries and co-founder and executive director of Community Solutions, Inc., where he runs the Generation X-cel™ and YW8 (Why Wait?)™ youth outreaches. www.GenerationXcel.com]
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