A few weeks ago I went on a mission trip with a group of middle schoolers from my church. I’ve led middle schoolers in different capacities over the years, but nowadays I spend most of my time with elementary kids. Honestly, I had forgotten how wonderful and absolutely absurd middle schoolers can be. I truly enjoyed my time with our students, I learned a lot from them and was challenged by my time with them. Yes, they tested my patience in more ways than one (they’re really good at it), but to my surprise they challenged the way I had been thinking about them as members of our church community. Throughout the trip, they had a lot of opportunities to be honest about their faith and their experiences in the church — a beautiful element of mission trips that I had forgotten about.
I’m still processing all that has stirred in me since our trip, but as always, I’d like to share my experiences and what questions I’m sitting with.
One of our evening outings was to an open mic prayer worship service which may be familiar to some but was not familiar to our middle schoolers. The pastor opened up the service by explaining how anyone could come up at any time to share a prayer or a piece of scripture that was on their heart. The worship team would be singing, members would be praying, reading scripture, and leaving space for anybody to forward as they felt called to do so. For the first hour most of the people who stepped forward were members of the worshiping community. Finally the pastor got up to encourage the students to share something, anything and with that prompt one brave soul decided to step forward.
Bashfully stepping to the mic, the kid began pouring out their heart. They talked about how their mom had been struggling financially and how that struggle has stolen their joy, impacted their family dynamics, and how everyone is really feeling the pressure, pain, and sadness of their financial situation. After sharing this story, a member of this worshiping community got up and together we prayed for the student’s family.
Then the floodgates were opened and student after student got up to ask for prayer as they shared about their difficult home lives like; upcoming life or death surgeries, cancer, suicide, financial insecurities, and family dysfunction.
They truly bore their burdens before the community.
As I listened to all of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students speak, my heart broke, and I was pushed to look at them differently. I had spent the first few days caught up in all of their minor annoyances, keeping up with the schedule, and making sure that at the very least their Bibles were in their backpacks.
At some point, I confess, I had begun to think that their hardships and problems were rather shallow.
Of course I had thought about the impact of the pandemic, and then I started to compare that to the hardships of some adults I know who have “real” responsibilities and “real” problems. What? As if these middle schoolers are not real people with hearts that feel and eyes that see and minds that are trying to process all that surrounds them.
Listen, our kids feel the weight of this world too.
They may or may not be paying bills, but they are seeing and feeling the burden of financial insecurities. They’re feeling the weight of family dysfunction whether it’s alcoholism, abuse, the process of divorce, or otherwise; they see it and they feel it, for themselves and those around them.
Later that evening we had time with our church group to sit and talk about their experiences at the prayer service. I must admit, the students were not afraid to share how boring they thought our own worshiping community was, which was no surprise to me but it did spark a helpful conversation about what they hope for and desire in their own communities.
They want a community that feels genuine, personable and open. What a beautiful thing to want for your community. This is what I've learned, my students desire for the church to feel like a welcoming place for them; a place where the “mic is open” and they have the welcomed authority to co-lead.
I’m not talking about “youth Sunday” where once a year they get to lead worship however they want. I’m not talking about all the opportunities they have to “serve” and do the heavy lifting in the projects no one else wants. No, these students enjoyed the freedom to be a part of the community, like the “grown ups” and not apart from the community as the youth group.
So the question is, what does it look like for the voices of our youth to be invited in, heard and included in the ways we do for adults? What needs adjusting in our minds and hearts to see and hear them as members?
Part of our mission work throughout the week was going to different service sites across the city. Students are asked to work on a variety of projects with a variety of people. At the end of our service day, we gave the students an opportunity to ask the adults some questions. One question that continues to stick in my mind was, “Why do adults always look down on kids?”
While there were chuckles from the adults, myself included, I immediately felt the genuine heartbreak in this question. I began thinking about all of the hard work that our students had done all day and all week. I started to realize how we kept asking and asking of them. We had asked them to pick up trash around neighborhoods, pull giant weeds in gardens, pack food at pantries, and make friends with every person they met. Yes, they’re on a mission trip and that’s part of the gig.
But the truth is that we have asked for and expected a lot from these kids. We want them to behave a certain way in church, be excited about youth ministry but not too excited that they cause a ruckus. They’re “what’s wrong with the church” and they’re usually the first to get volun-told for projects at church. This question gave the group an opportunity to be honest about the fact that adults are complicated beings too. We don’t always get things right and we are coming to the table with our own stories and our own desires.
Our students want to be respected in the ways that every being deserves.
Some of us have a tendency to think that respect needs to be earned; that might make sense sometimes. But here, in our faith community? With the youth of our community? I think they have asked a great question. I continue to ask myself, how do we teach, nurture, and encourage other generations while respecting them as individuals and a collective?
I’ve continued to mull over one of our final conversations. We are driving a bunch of minivans and there are seven middle schoolers in my van, having a wonderful time, bopping to classic cartoon theme songs. We are laughing, joking, and chatting when there just so happened to a prime opportunity to ask them a question about confirmation.
I asked them “If you were in charge of student programming, (what we call confirmation) what would you do? What would it look like? I got a few less than helpful comments and never-going-to-happen suggestions, but I also got a lot of really constructive feedback. There was more excitement about their ideas and the possibilities than I was anticipating.
Most profoundly, they asked for an opportunity to disciple others.
They literally asked me if they could help teach the elementary kids about Jesus.
“You know what we should do? Like, we should have one Wednesday or Sunday where we all get to lead the elementary kids or something? Play games, do the skits and bible study and stuff. That would be so fun! And it would help us learn to share what we’ve learned!”
I am beside myself every time I think about that request. They want to go and make disciples. Had I not asked, I would have not known. If I gave them more opportunities to imagine “the Church,” they would.
I am sharing these experiences with you because they brought me more understanding, empathy, and encouragement. As we continue to walk into a new chapter in the Church I want us to be doing so wisely. We’re wondering, what does our community need, how do we serve each other well? That requires a lens that looks for the underserved, under-appreciated, and unheard; in many of our communities that includes the youth. After a week with these rowdy kids, I feel challenged to look at the ways I embrace and engage our youth and how I can be a better advocate for them within our community.
I embolden you to consider to do the same.
Jess Gulseth is a seminarian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul seeking ordination in the ELCA. Jess is a Director of Children & Family ministry in the Des Moines, IA area.
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