"Giving the Kids the Keys" – Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
In today's gospel text I recognized an opportunity to talk about the ways in which Cross of Grace ministers to and with our youth.
You might think this is a stretch, given that Jesus doesn’t explicitly say anything about youth in today’s passage. However, today’s gospel text is all about the future of the church; and Jesus makes it clear that his disciples, uniquely Peter, have a significant role to play in the future of the church. It is worth noting that the consensus in Biblical scholarship is that Peter, along with the other disciples of Jesus, would have been teenagers during their time with Jesus.
That’s probably not the image of Jesus’ disciples you had in your mind, is it?
The centuries of canvas artwork, stained glass, illustrated Bibles, and made-for-TV movies have lied to us by portraying the disciples middle-age white guys with thick beards. Delete the mental image of the scene you had in your mind and realize that this is a conversation between God’s Son, himself in his late-twenties, and a bunch of teenagers who are eager to be a part of something bigger than themselves. This is a story about youth ministry, the future of the church, and the identity of God. We would be wise to contemplate its implications for us today because today’s teenagers are equally as eager to be a part of something like what Jesus promised.
At least four years ago Cross of Grace started discussing the possibility of bringing in someone to focus on its various youth ministries. I wasn’t part of those discussions; however, for better or worse, I am the result of those discussions. For 3 1/2 years we have served together. You have entrusted your youth into my spiritual care and I have sought to care for the entire congregation, and in particular our youth, albeit with various level of success.
In a very real sense, 3-1/2 years into this position I still don’t know what I am doing. The landscape of youth ministry is changing as rapidly as everything else in our society. Tried and true approaches to youth ministry are no longer as effective as they once were. Books on the topic written just a few years ago seem to reference a time long gone by.
Congregations no longer serve the same functions as they did in previous generations. One’s involvement with a congregations is no longer a top priority, nor a cultural expectation. In fact, now more than ever before, congregations are viewed as a liability rather than an asset, even for people hungry to sense and serve God – people who prefer a safer individual spirituality so as to avoid the all-too-common painful experiences of religion observed alongside other imperfect people.
There is no one-sized-fits-all approach for a successful youth ministry. Nor is it something I can do on my own. I would have left this position long ago if I felt that you were expecting me to ‘do’ your kid’s spirituality for them (or for you, for that matter). In fact, the times when I have recognized success in youth ministry have been when I have been able to empower you to be the most important spiritual influences in our kid’s lives. That goes for you whether you are a parent, grandparent, or someone who simply wants to make a positive impact in a child’s life.
The call to support, encourage, inspire, and equip the youth in our community is a call that extends to every Partner in Mission at Cross of Grace. And you participate in this virtuous work by acknowledging our youth, smiling with them, asking them about their lives and interests, teaching them and learning from them, serving alongside them in the community, showing up at their events to support them, and letting them know that they are valued, respected, and loved.
So take this moment to acknowledge the role you play in the lives of our youth, both inside our church walls as well as the youth in our wider communities. I sincerely thank you for being parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, children’s church leaders, youth group volunteers, nursery attendants, mentors, and more. I trust that you have been inspired by encounters with our youth.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a Partner in Mission who told me how she grew up in the confines of a religion that made her afraid of God because God she was taught that God judged her unworthy to be loved. She told me how much our weekly children’s sermon time means to her because every Sunday morning Pastor Mark or I take something out of the box and always turn it into a message about how much God loves each child. She is optimistic that generations of youth who grow up in a church inundated with a consistent message of grace and love will yield abundant spiritual fruit both now and in the future.
I also keep a memory tucked in the back of my mind as motivation for the difficult work of youth ministry. During my first year of serving a congregation in Kentucky I recall telling the congregation I would skip the youth message that morning because no children were there. A potent sense of sadness and despair emanated from those pews. It was a despair rooted in two stark truths: 1) the congregation wouldn’t exist much longer without another generation to rise up; and 2) a feeling of failure, that they had not taken seriously their call to nurture generations beyond their own.
It fills me with so much joy and energy to be able to say to you that if I lived in this area and had a job other than pastor at Cross of Grace, I would still choose to worship here and raise my children here. I hope you recognize what a gift we have here. I hope that you recognize your role in it.
Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back, but stay focused, because there is work left to be done. And I desperately want you to be a part of it, both for the youth’s sake, as well as your own.
One of the directions I have been trying to steer us towards is a focus on building relationships across generations. The only reason I am a part of the church today in any capacity is because I was fortunate to have a number of people in my home congregation from all different ages who went out of their way to make me feel appreciated, valued, and loved. In my darkest times, I could remember many people from my home congregation whom I knew thought that my life was important. This is incredible gift that you could give to our youth at Cross of Grace.
I place a high priority on any ministry that brings different generations together to create nurturing and healthy relationships. Starting in October, Cross of Grace will start its second year of “Cross-generational gatherings” between worship services on the first Sunday of each month. These are opportunities to sit at a table with a child, work on a craft or activity, play a game, sing a song, talk about Bible stories, and make a new friend. Last year’s participants told me how much they enjoyed the events. I hope you realize I am talking to you when I say you missed out if you didn’t participate last year; and you will really want to be a part of this.
Another exciting cross-generational aspect we’re trying this year is a mentoring program with our Faith Formation students. Pastor Mark is pairing an adult faith mentor for each of our Faith Formation students. This adult will pray for the youth, make a point of conversing on Sundays, and take it upon him or herself to be an example of faith and dependability for the youth. I had a faith mentor when I was in Middle School. He and his wife became dear friends and I still look forward to seeing them, even though those opportunities are rare these days.
And here is one more way that you can make a difference in the lives of our youth: show up for their concerts, performances, and sporting events. Joannie Bowen preached a fantastic message at a midweek Lenten service in which she encouraged us to be the “fans in the stands” for our youth. She was instrumental in bringing women’s athletics to Hancock County and she makes it her mission to go to as many games as possible. Talk to any of our youth and they will be able to say that Joannie came to at least one of his or her games. You know that’s powerful. And it’s something you can be a part of. So look for our F.I.T.S. announcements and mark your calendars to show up and be amazed at what our youth are capable of.
The landscape of youth ministry is changing and it is a very exciting time to be a part of it. What amazing news it is to know that every change, experiment, success, and failure is supported by God’s promise that the church built on the rock will last forever. May you remember that Jesus first gave this promise to a bunch of teenagers. And may you be inspired that the future of God’s good news through word, service, and sacrament is in the hands of our youth.