Stop calling youth the “future of the church”

I often hear well-meaning adult churchgoers tell me, usually after a wonderful Eucharist where many young members were baptized or confirmed, that “the youth are the future of the church.” I ask you, beloved of God, to stop saying this.

Whatever good intentions you have in mind when you say this, you are not making gospel sense. Rather, you are unintentionally undervaluing the very young men and women you love and admire.

Youth are not the future of the church. They are an essential part of the present of the church. They form the same life and vitality of the church as anyone else, thank God, and shame on us if we cannot or will not see that. Why marginalize young members by sliding their value out into some future time? This language strongly suggests, behind the kind-sounding words, that the church really values youth for our self-preservation. One Sunday last Fall a good Episcopalian said to me, “The church will die without more youth.” No. The church will die without an unswerving commitment to sharing the life and love of Jesus Christ. Our focus is the Gospel, not recruiting young bodies for the pews. The point of Sunday school and youth groups and youth mission trips is not and cannot be to make more church members. It must, must, must be to share our joy, our hope, our faith in Christ Jesus with the next generation. It must be to listen to their hopes and fears and include their voices in our common life and priorities.

When I listen to our youth, I expect to hear echoes of the Holy Spirit as much as I do when I hear from any adult. We adults get predictable and unhelpful. We get set in our ways and too confident in the rightness of our own opinions. Arguments from adults tend to be (this is a generalization, I admit) rather predictable, as if our best ideas and highest hopes are fixed and unyielding. Thank God for the young, for their minds are not so closed to uncomfortable facts or contrary opinions! The deepest energy, challenge, and inspiration comes, IMHO, from youth. The most stirring and compelling calls I have heard for action — for racial justice or caring for veterans or sparking renewal in the church — have come from young members.

I encourage all of us to seek out and listen to our youth, and to be more than willing to receive and act upon the lessons we learn from them. Instead of telling young girls and boys that they are the future, tell them something instead that Jesus might have said. “You are beloved of God. Tell me what is on your heart, I want to know. I thank God you are here.”

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