During the 2021 National Lutheran Youth Workers Conference, we had more than just youth workers in our audience. YouthLead, previously Lutheran Youth Fellowship, took this opportunity to run a parallel track for high school leaders in their congregations.
During one of the Main Stage Q and As, an adult asked if we could hear from the youth in attendance. Their question was simple. What are 3-5 things you want adults to know? All 60 young people went back into small groups and discussed the most important things they wanted to share with the adults. And they did share those things to the whole conference at the start of our final Main Stage session.
The YouthLead Executive Team, a group of five elected young people who lead our program, graciously gave me their notes. I worked with them to flesh out and share those notes with you. These thoughts aren’t universal or perfectly formed because of time limitations and the particulars of the circumstance. Yet, I think they are helpful for youth leaders to hear. As you hopefully know, teens today have plenty of powerful things to say.
1. Don’t generalize our generation.
Data can be helpful in getting the broad strokes of any generation, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Adults in the congregation shouldn’t make assumptions about teens based exclusively on what the media is covering or what they hear anecdotally. In fact, you shouldn’t generalize what youth want based on this list because even this list was created in one time and place by a small group of young people who desire to be leaders in their church.
Each of us is in an individual worth getting to know. They might be overwhelmed if you put them up front or into a leadership role without getting to know them. When you generalize, especially in spaces like social media, it can throw up obstacles to understanding and caring across the generations.
2. Give us an opportunity to lead in important roles.
We want a chance to use the gifts and skills God has given us to lead in meaningful ways. We want to be able to serve up front in places like music in worship, leading in children’s programs, youth ministry and more. Get to know us and help us to find the places where God can work in us to really contribute. Give us a long leash to try things out our own way. Yes, we may fail, but trust us and be with us when we do.
3. You don’t have to pretend to understand.
While you were young once, you were never young in this moment. Don’t assume you know exactly what we are experiencing or try too hard to relate your experience to ours. Instead, be okay with not totally understanding and continue to ask questions. Offer empathy and support even if you don’t totally get what a teen is going through.
4. Treat us like peers not children.
No one likes to be underestimated or talked down to. Even if you have known us since we were little, teens are capable hard work and of talking through difficult things. Listen to us, don’t dismiss our opinions and hear us out. When you have to call us out, make time to do it in love, not just a lecture.
5. Please include us in Decisions.
We want to have a voice in what happens in our church. Include us in decisions on what youth events are like, choosing staff and faculty, facilities, and churchwide events. This should also include conversations about how resources like money is spent. Even if we can’t vote or have a formal leadership role, it’s important for teens to give input and hear what adult leaders are thinking and deliberating.
6. We want to be welcomed.
Adults can help make the congregation a welcome place for teens by doing simple things. Make eye contact. Share food with us. Engage us in conversation that is genuine. We can tell when you are genuine and welcoming us or just checking a box.
7. Help us build relationships with adults.
We want to have a relationship with adults in our congregation and it is as easy as starting a conversation where you genuinely want our input. Don’t be afraid to spend time getting to know us. When we come to you with a problem, really listen to us. When we have feedback to you or towards ministry, take that gracefully.
If you need to challenge our thinking, do it in an uplifting, not condescending, way. Ask “Why?” in a way that shows you genuinely want to hear the answer. Help us to learn rather than shutting down conversation by simply declaring us wrong.
As a youth leader, I will end with this thought. In 1 Timothy 4, God calls on Timothy to set an example of discipleship and leadership even in his youth. The church can do well to learn from the example of young people as God works through them in their vocations right now. They will be far from perfect in their example, but no person is. God is gracious and forgiving in their mistakes and in yours along the way.
Please do not underestimate your young people. For too long we have expected too little from teens who are capable of thoughtful decision making, strong leadership, and deep empathy. God is working in and through them as they learn and grow in Him. This generation is funny and passionate, brave and capable. God has gifted them mightily and we do them a disservice when we limit them.
It is a great joy to get to walk alongside the young people who lead and attend YouthLead. They give me hope and point me back to Jesus. I pray as you care for young people in your congregation, you can give them space and watch as God will do powerful things through them.