It seems to me that staying close to vision has never been more important than in February 2021. We have the usual February (post-New Year resolution) slump, but this year we find ourselves, once again, isolated from our youth groups and children’s activities.
It’s in response to this that I am reminded that it is only our proximity to Jesus and his vision that will help us not just ‘get through’ this season. Instead, our proximity to Jesus can help us lead our young people and children to see the world through the lens of scripture, with the hope of the Holy Spirit, using our God-given imaginations to bring a better future into being.
Great strides have been made in poverty reduction in recent decades, which is a cause for hope. However, one of the many global impacts of COVID-19, coupled with conflict and the climate crisis, is that this positive trend is taking a heart-breaking turn. Recent figures suggest up to 150 million additional people could be pushed into poverty this year 2021.
Again I say, if ever there was a time to invite a generation to sit close to Jesus, looking at where we are seeing him at work and carrying vision for the world, it is now!
If people can’t see what God is doing,
they stumble all over themselves;
But when they attend to what he reveals,
they are most blessed.
Proverbs 29:18 (The Message)
One of the biggest challenges we will face in 2021 is that careful balance between supporting individuals through the rollercoaster that is to come, doing what we can to meaningfully love our local communities, while also raising a generation who understand that we are one part of the global neighbourhood and global story that God is writing.
It would be too tempting to put up walls and convince ourselves that we must look after our own. Then, when there is time and people are feeling more secure, we can turn our eyes to the bigger picture. But this is the Jesus we follow:
- The Jesus who went out of his way to meet a woman at a well in the blistering heat, in a part of the world that considered him an ‘enemy’.
- The Jesus who rode into Jerusalem not on a horse through the gate of the wealthy and powerful, but on a donkey, through the gate used by the communities living in poverty.
- The Jesus who chose to be born in a town considered too small and poor to be of any value whatsoever.
If we are to lead our children and young people into encounter with the Jesus we read about in scripture, we are making a very conscious decision to follow him to these places. The places of pain and poverty, the people and places others wanted to forget.
This applies even in lockdown in 2021, when we try to work out what this new world is going to look like. And I would like to put it to us – a community discipling the next generations – that we cannot let an opportunity like this pass us by. Please don’t hear me as adding pressure to our already very difficult time in ministry. My prayer is that this will refresh your vision and passion for what you’re doing.
Support our global community
A practical outworking of following Jesus to the people and places of pain and poverty, is to regularly help our young people have a bigger view of the world than the four walls of their houses, social media and Zoom calls. Ask who they’re following on social media. Are they following accounts which help them learn about the world? Could you have a slot in each children’s session to learn about and pray for a community somewhere in the world?
We can never underestimate the holy space between information and prayer, it is the space where miracles can happen! When we are informed about what is happening in the world and guided to prayer, we purposefully open our hearts to Jesus and ask him to make our hearts like his. We weep for those who are suffering and we pursue holy anger against systemic injustice. We are never too young to have these encounters with the Lord.
Perhaps invite your group to learn together about the climate crisis. So many of our young people know lots about the causes and impacts of climate change. On the one hand, it is a priority topic in school because of its devastating global impact and urgent need for action. On the other hand, we rarely talk about it in church. This is creating a gap in which young people are feeling disillusioned and some are even leaving the church. (See note at the end for research findings.)
We know that in the Bible there is no such gap. There is no gap between humankind and creation – in fact from Genesis right through to Revelation, it is clear that we are intended to live in community with creation. Creation and humankind were designed to have an interdependent relationship in which both flourish as we co-exist. Adam names the animals, an image of honouring and serving. The first purpose of humankind as decreed by the Lord is to ‘care for my creation’. But in our human-ness we have neglected interdependence in favour of consumption.
What might it look like for you to commit to learning together as a group about the climate crisis, reading scripture to understand Jesus’ heart and vision? How might we ensure that our children’s activities engage even our youngest in ideas and ways to make a difference?
And as always, make it real. We can do this even during lockdown. If we’re talking about climate change, invite the group to take on a green challenge with their families (eg go veggie for a week). If we’re talking about praying for those in poverty, start a prayer thread on your group chat. If you’re reminding young people that they can make a real difference, do a fun lockdown-fundraiser.
Support children and young people
We must take every opportunity to remind young people that though the landscape can look bleak, they can (and were designed to) make a difference.
Young people have proven time and time again their ability to imagine and create. They are not limited by their previous experiences. Two of their biggest barriers are their own inner monologue and the people around them.
Here is where our theological input and discipleship is key. When our inner monologue tells us that we can follow Jesus without pursuing justice as a central narrative, then we risk following a Jesus who only exists to serve me and make my life better. Instead, as theologian Karl Barth famously said: “We read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Or in our case, the Bible in one hand and a reliable news source on Instagram! In doing this we are reminded that because of the deep and profound love of Jesus, we are given purpose and contribution toward a better world.
When that monologue tells me to look after myself first, I have leaned toward culture instead of leaning toward Jesus. Having a good relationship with ourselves is a core gospel principle which comes into being when we remember that this is not instead of looking after others. Rather, we teach our young people to see the call of God through scripture to create a world where all people can flourish, celebrating difference and rejecting that which divides us.
But when that inner monologue tells our children and young people that they are too young and too inexperienced, we speak the truths of the Lord over them and pray. We remind our young people that history is full of people like them who stood for a cause and made a huge difference. We don’t even have to look to history for examples – we can learn about Greta Thunberg (who started a global climate movement at the age of 16) or Malala Yousafzai (who started blogging about what it was like to live under Taliban rule when she was 12; at 19 she is an activist for female education).
There is no such thing in the Bible as ‘too young’ or ‘not important enough’. Jesus chose disciples who were completely unknown and likely to have been in their teens. God chose David, the youngest, least powerful brother, to be king. God chose Esther, a young woman in a time of male dominance, to change laws and set people free. This is the God we serve – he has a habit of choosing young people to make a difference!
And when we think about that second barrier of people, we are compelled to find every method we can to make space for young people to act on behalf of their global neighbours. Whether it is as simple as a fundraiser with the church family, or a young person with an idea who needs someone to give them space and support. Our joy in response is to support; be the person who says yes, the person who helps them get over hurdles and sharpen their ideas, who finds people with a bit of expertise to walk the journey with them. But most importantly, believe for them when their confidence fails, and believe with them when they need to ask others for permission to act.
What a wonderful challenge for those of us ministering to young people and children. To choose the harder path and raise a generation who follow Jesus to people and places in pain and poverty. But because of this we see the miracles of the Lord, for we have occupied the spaces of informed, heart-moulding prayer. And we will confidently cheer on a generation who are carrying the vision of Jesus, picking up the pen and writing a better future for our world.