“Life affords no greater responsibility, no greater privilege, than the raising of the next generation.” C. Everett Coop
Not everything that is important feels urgent. Often we give our time and attention to the urgent tasks, the pressing problems, the “fires” we need to extinguish. But this reactionary rhythm will inevitably lead us to neglect things of lasting importance. In church, as in life, there is a whole lot to be done. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind and fail to take a moment to pause and consider what is the best use of our time. But work without intentionality leads to outcomes without impact. We have to pause, slow down, and consider what is really important so we can determine where to invest our limited time and energy.
One of the most important investments we will ever make is an investment in the next generation. We know it’s true, but often in church this is not where our attention and resources go. Reaching the next generation is not the only thing a church is called to do, but it is certainly one of its most important functions. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). It is a noble aim, and an essential mission of the church, to turn people to Jesus. But if we can start children off on the right path, we may never have to turn them from the wrong one. Reaching children is just getting to future adults in advance.
The most important thing you need to reach the next generation is a heart for young people. If you love them, you will find a way to reach them. Since you’re reading this article, I will assume you have a heart for the young people God has placed around you. Here are two things I have learned as I’ve sought to reach the young people God has placed around me.
1. Learn Before You Teach
“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Maybe your temptation, like mine, is to find a young person and start teaching. Here’s everything I know. Here are some things you need to learn. Here’s what you need to work on. These are all good conversations to have. They’re just not the first conversation you should have. The truth is, while you have a lot to teach, you also have a lot to learn. Every person has a unique story, unique gifts, and unique passions. Never assume that you know where someone is coming from or what they’re dealing with. Rather, invite them to share those things with you. Before you start teaching them, learn about them. To put it even more simply, before you start talking, listen. When it comes to relationships, especially with young people, listening will take you much further than speaking ever will. Many people are just looking for someone who will listen, someone who cares enough to hear them out. Be that person for the people around you.
Another temptation you may run into is the impulse to imitate the person you’re talking to. Kids don’t need you to pretend to be them; they want you to be you. But you do need to show them that you care enough to learn about the world they’re living in. It may not be the world you’re living in, but developing some understanding of their circumstances and their context will help you to meet them where they are. Even if you don’t speak their language, be aware of their language. The best way to learn about someone is from them. If you don’t understand something, ask about it. Let them explain and listen intently as they do. As you demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn, you will naturally find opportunities to speak and to teach.
2. Connect Before You Correct
“Try to do for the next generation of leaders what the previous generation of leaders has not done for you.” Andy Stanley
Young people need to be corrected. They need guidance in how they think and what they do. In my experience, they actually want correction. They may not always welcome it in the moment, but ultimately they want someone who can speak into their life and help keep them on the right path. But before they receive correction, they need connection. If there is one thing I have found the next generation longing for, this is it: actual human connection. We are living at a time when technology, which seems like it should make connection easier than ever, is actually leading people into loneliness and alienation. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone today is the gift of friendship: being present, engaged, and available. Before anything else, you need to start there.
This is why youth ministry has to go beyond an event. A service may draw a crowd, but what kids are really longing for is a community. And that is built not in rows, but in circles. Often we ask kids to come to us—come to church, show up to the event, attend the conference—but are we willing to go to them? If we are going to reach them, we are going to have to reach out to them. We can’t settle for cool conferences and big gatherings. We have to create opportunities for young people to develop real, meaningful relationships. They don’t need another performance. They get plenty of that in the world. What they need is a person who cares enough to connect. Your care is more important than your content. Content probably won’t change their lives. But a conversation might.
One of the saddest passages of scripture is this simple, single verse in the book of Judges: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). That, my friends, is a tragedy. And it is not a tragedy I care to repeat in my lifetime. No, I am committed to sharing the story of God’s faithfulness with the next generation and inviting them to come to know him for themselves. I can think of few things of greater significance than that. The “next generation” is an abstraction that no one person is called to reach alone. Rather, you and I have been given the great privilege and great responsibility of reaching out to the young people God has placed in our lives. Let’s steward it well.