Becky May recalls how her plans finally turned out and how you can guide the young people in your life
I recently saw one of those instantly relatable and endlessly re-shareable images on Facebook; “If you’re worried that you have ruined God’s plans for your life, don’t worry my friend, you are not that powerful.” It was a quote that I would have found helpful when I was 30, or 24, or 21, or 18, or 13…
When I was 10 or 11, I was pretty confident I knew and understood God’s plan for the rest of my life… raise money for street kids in Brazil, learn Portuguese or Spanish, go to South America to be a missionary working with street children.
Things got off to a strong start, we formed a fundraising group, washed cars, made our own poetry book, wrote letters to Tearfund. Age 13, I hit the first hurdle, the Upper School (we were under the 3-tier system), I was going to offered French and German, not Spanish or Portuguese. Not to worry! God would have a way round this. As the next few years progressed, life became more and more complex and a move to South America became all the more distant. Perhaps God was calling me to mission somewhere in this country? Manchester perhaps? It was all going on up there! Trips to Summer missions would fuel my interest and excitement but somewhere in the midst of all that, I heard God tell me very clearly that he didn’t want me to move to South America or Manchester or anywhere, he wanted me to work in my home community to share Jesus with the children and young people who lived there.
Two specific incidents confirmed this to me; firstly a UCAS application form to five far off places, and a back up home town university resulted in only one suitable offer; the home town campus. And secondly, all hopes of a gap year spent on mission in distant lands came crashing to earth through a combination of health issues and financial pressures.
These weren’t the only times I’ve wondered if I might be ruining God’s plans, but they were the episodes that occurred in my most-formative years and shaped my path for the rest of my life so far, so what happened? In my gap year, I got a job working as an admin assistant in a local office. It led to five years of flexible employment around my studies and short-term UK based missions. It also meant I could go back into my Upper School on a regular basis to help support the Christian Union there. It also meant I was able to serve in my home church in the midweek clubs reaching children and young people with the good news of Jesus all of which continued when I took up my teacher training in my hometown. I didn’t ruin God’s plans, I hadn’t fully understood them. It is highly likely that God has more surprises in store for me yet but piece by piece, he reveals his plans. I now lead a charity working across the home county I had tried so hard to leave, supporting local churches as they seek to make young disciples.
The reality is, this isn’t just my experience. All of us will have our own stories of where we thought our lives were headed in one direction, and yet they turned a corner to a different pathway. Sometimes, these will be pathways of our own choosing, sometimes away from the will of God, and other times, because God reveals a new pathway to us, other times, we will feel that our choices have been taken away from us, and we are left with the second prize. For our young people, they will need people to walk alongside them in this ever-changing season helping them to navigate the journey, to make wise choices and to notice what God is doing in our midst. So what lessons can we learn from these experience as we journey with young people through the most transformative years of their lives?
How we journey with young people
Firstly, I think we need to believe that God speaks to and works with our youngest children. Our wider church family trusted us to wash their cars, bought our poetry books and asked us more about the issues that matters to us. Whatever questions or doubts they may have had in private, publicly they cheered us on and never made us question whether God might call someone like us. When our children come and tell us that they think God has spoken to them about something, we should help them to discern that, and encourage them that God does speak. More than that, our children need us to show them that God does call them. When we teach them the stories of David and Goliath, the boy with the fish and loaves, Samuel in the middle of the night, we need to teach them that God still speaks to us and works with us today. Share testimonies of others who have heard God’s voice when they were young, notice when they are passionate about a cause and help them to see that God has given that interest to them. We can also create safe spaces where young people can work out what God is calling them into. This may include short term mission opportunities, perhaps overseas or here in the UK, or simply serving in meaningful ways within the local church.
Secondly, we need to come alongside our young people to have the big conversations; how do we know when God is speaking to us? How do we test that out? What if I’ve got it wrong? It is really important that we take the opportunity to share our own stories. For young people venturing out and growing into new seasons of their lives, it can feel overwhelming. ‘No one understands how I feel,’ isn’t just a throwaway teenage line, it’s a genuine feeling of life being too big. We need to share those moments of our own experiences, the times when God felt close and the times when he felt far away. The times we lived in certainty, and the times when it felt like we were walking through a foggy night. What did we do in those situations? What did God do? And what did we discover? In sharing our own stories, we give our young people permission to ask their own big life questions, and as we walk alongside them, we can give them the language to articulate their experiences; what is God doing here? As we journey through life with our young people, we need to remember that God has placed us in community with him and with eachother and so we can learn from the life experiences of our children and young people, as much as they can learn from our testimonies. Be ready to ask God what he is teaching you too.
Finally, I think we need to remember that not everybody gets to go away. In some circles, young people can face such a pressure to go away on an exotic year out programme or leave for university on the other side of the country and for many these will be wonderful, transformative experiences, but they are not in reach for all young people. Here we will need to be wise when we consider the barriers our young people face, be they financial, health, disability or perhaps academic. For some of our young people, our role will be to help them to overcome or remove those barriers, perhaps providing financial assistance, for instance or playing the role of advocate in supporting them on their way. But there will be other young people, as with my own story, where God has determined a different pathway and we need to consider what we do to come alongside those young people.
Our young people need people around them who value them as individuals and as members of the local church. They need to know that they are not second-best to their peers who leave home, but that we consider ourselves blessed to have them in our midst. We also need to value the contribution they make to the lives of our church and give them opportunities to serve here with us. Picture the scene; option one: Go to the other side of the world, single-handedly build a hospital and start saving lives, option two: stay home and run the projector on Sunday mornings. I am exaggerating of course, but you can understand the sentiment. For those young people who stay home and watch their peers leave for far off adventures, we have a specific role to play in helping them to grow and develop and fulfil their potential. It may be that we need to take time out specifically to walk alongside those young people, helping them to identify what God is calling them into and providing them with opportunities both to serve and to grow.
As we walk with our young people in this season of their lives where one phase has ended, and a new stage begins, we have the immense privilege of seeing them grow in the people God has called them to be. There is no one size fits all model, the Bible shouts that we are uniquely and wonderfully made in the image of God, created for a purpose with a unique role to play in the body of Christ. Our role should surely be to help our young people to find that space which is uniquely theirs, and fully play their part.