The ways we think about and encourage youth should be aimed at empowering them.
By Chap Clark
When I am invited to preach or speak, I typically rent a car so that after I’ve given folks everything, I can go somewhere—either to a hotel hot tub or a small gathering with friends—where I don’t have to preach or speak anymore.
But having access to a car keeps me from encounters like the one I had with a pastor who insisted on taking me to the airport himself.
“I liked your adoptive ministry talk,” he told me. “Now I get what my sixteen-year-old son needs. I’ve got to get five men to pour into his life.”
As he drove, he catalogued his many complaints about his son. He was a disappointment. He just needed to grow up and to learn how to be a man for a change.
“That’s why I need to find five great men who can pour themselves into him and show him what it means to be a man of God.”
Yellow and red flags started to fly in my mind.
For one thing, while I believe that young people would appreciate a few adult men and women to gently and organically come alongside and care for them, I’m not sure the way to achieve this is by having a father finding other like-minded guys to “pour into him.”
As common as it is, the “pouring” language does not reflect what adoptive ministry looks like. I know it’s popular lingo, but doesn’t pouring usually mean one person is a big pitcher full of water and the other person is an empty vessel? Even when lovingly applied, this approach can be one-way and top-down. Adoptive youth ministry is more about providing support and care to a young person than it is about pouring. As Paul puts it to his friends in Thessalonica, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:11–12). And even that word, urging, is not with the intensity of “pouring into” but the offering of hope. That’s what the five adults in the life of a young person represent—not a one-way directing, but a mutual and organic friendship that an adult sibling offers.
The concept of nurture comes from the Latin “to suckle, to nourish” and later “the act of nursing.” In English, to nurture means to “care for and protect (someone or something) while they are growing.”
Let’s explore how adoptive ministries can nurture the young by both protecting and caring for them.
I know many ministries that seek to protect and care for young people. Some are very effective. But what happens when kids graduate and leave your program? Will they continue to live well and engage the world in ways that strengthen their life and their faith? Will they continue to live into their mutual adoption as siblings in the household of God?
Protection means more than permission slips and health forms and adequate supervision on trips and at lock-ins.
These are important, but God’s family can also protect young people’s developing hearts and psyches. We can help young people interpret and filter the world they encounter so they know how to respond. That may mean providing them with resources and experts when it comes to issues of gender discrimination, violence, media and the like. It also means being present enough with them so that we adults are able to more deeply understand what it is like to be a young person in this culture. This understanding would allow us to engage with them as they move through adolescence.
How to explain caring? I believe compassion is key. Henri Nouwen said that to show compassion means “to suffer with” another. This is loving with teeth. Instead of building a wall of protection around our young, or hiring the best staff to lead them, an adoptive community comes alongside the young and “suffers with” each one.
To suffer with others, we must initiate relationships with them. We must seek to know them and know about them. We must do what is not done by anyone else in their world: We must commit to remaining close by every person God brings into our church families. We must embody sacrificial love and compassion to truly nurture these others.
Practically, caring with compassion means we must:
• Demonstrate our compassion so we can build bridges of trust.
• Actively show respect for each person instead of waiting for them to show respect to us.
• Listen to them instead of trying to force them to listen to us.
• Initiate relationships without pushing our agenda or timetable on them
• Seek to empathize with them, meaning we sit on the steps of their world, making sure that they know that we are interested in what their life is like.
• Advise and share only when asked, knowing that when they are ready and trust us, we are most able to speak in a way that encourages and builds them up.
By following these practical principles of caring with compassion, we heed Paul’s admonishment in Colossians 4:5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.”
Empowering Young People
How many times have you heard someone say, “Young people are the future of the church”? Many times when I’ve heard it, the unsubtle message is that adults get to control things for now, and the young people can take over once we’re all dead.
When it comes to their faith, every young person needs to know that they have value as siblings in the household of God. All too often, even in youth ministry, we have limited empowerment to serving the internal youth ministry program or succumbed to a church’s plea for warm bodies to “teach” in the children’s ministry. Occasionally, a church may require a special ability, and because there is no one else who can fill that need, a church may seek out (and call it “empower”) a student to serve (like a bass player for the worship band, or someone to help usher or park cars).
Under these circumstances, a young person who is given the opportunity to contribute may or may not feel a sense of empowerment in the process. When a task is offered without a commitment to proactively naming that student’s worth and value as a member of the adoptive community, they intuitively know that they are simply filling a need.
In these circumstances, they rarely feel a sense of authentic empowerment. Yet when a belief in the contribution of a young person is celebrated and affirmed in the faith community, in recognition of their importance to that body, their sense of self and ability to make a difference strengthens their sense of worth and connection to the broader community. This is empowerment. Here are three ways we can empower young people.
Involve the Whole Community
Communicating to students that they are valuable needs to happen outside the walls and networks of the youth ministry. They need to be welcome participants in the whole community.
An adoptive church looks to avoid a scenario where a high school student may be valued as a third-grade Sunday school teacher, but her value reaches only as far as the children’s ministry staff. Nor would this church be content with a situation where a sound tech played an integral part of the production staff, but no one outside the department even knows what he does or who he is.
To intentionally empower the young to feel like they are important members of the church family, we must find creative and strategic ways for them to be seen and celebrated as vital to the household of faith. To do that, we need lots of adults to know every young person who calls our church their home.
Excerpted from Adoptive Church by Chap Clark, ©2018. Used by permission of Baker Publishing. BakerPublishingGroup.com.