Increasingly in my reading and reflections, I’ve been reminded of the truth that the responsibility of raising the next generation to follow Jesus does not belong to only paid staff and a handful of volunteers, or parents, but to the entire local congregation. Throughout Scripture, we see God reminding his people to invest in and pour into the next generation. I love Psalm 78, and frequently draw people’s attention back to it:
“We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.”
Michael McGarry notes, “While parents are primarily responsible to raise their children to love the LORD their God, these commands are for parents within the context of Israel as a whole. The generations of Israel are together commanded to pass on the faith to their children, and they are judged as a people for their failure to do so.” He continues to draw his readers’ attention to Old Testament stories, and illustrates how judgment came on the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, in part because of their failure to raise the next generation to follow God.
Furthermore, we know the value of being in community so that we can grow in our faith. We know the benefit that comes from being with other people who love Jesus. We recognize the value that corporate worship plays in our spiritual formation, as it forms habits in us that draws our attention to Jesus; through worship, we become immersed in and shaped by the Jesus-story. I love Christine Pohl’s vision of community as she writes that “communities in which we grow and flourish, however, last over time and are built by people who are faithful to one another and committed to a shared purpose.” Youth aren’t as interested in flashy and cool church experiences, as they are in warm and welcoming church communities. It takes work to create warm and welcoming environments, and they need to be rooted in relationships.
And so, in the midst of a pandemic, as we experience the decreased influence of our communities of faith, how can we be faithful to one another? Even more pointedly, how can we be faithful to our youth and children?
If you are reading this blog, chances are you’re connected to a church. That means that YOU have a responsibility to “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD.” YOU have the responsibility to be faithful to the next generation, and committed to their spiritual formation.
I spent twenty years in hands-on youth ministry, as a volunteer and a youth pastor. And now, my hands-on experience is largely because I am a middle-school parent. And so, as a parent, let me remind you of how valuable your influence can be in the life of a middle-schooler. The pandemic is isolating. Our children need to hear that they are valuable, that they are missed, that they are part of the community, the Church.
In Ephesians 2:4-5, Paul writes that “God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses.”  I love this idea that God made US alive with Christ. God put US in community, to support one another, and this includes our children and students. They are our younger brothers and sisters in Christ.
So what can you do?
Take time to pray for families in your church. Grab your church directory and look at names. Commit to praying for a family or two. If you don’t have young families in your church, chances are you probably know some family in your community. We can pray for families who aren’t part of our church too!
Call the house and talk to the youth and children. Call and chat with the parents, first, and ask their permission to check in with their kids. It’s not enough to just call the parents because the children don’t hear the voices. It’ll be awkward, and the kids may not say much, or they may talk about something you don’t understand, but they will remember that you called. It’ll mean something. It might help if you write out a few questions first that you could ask them, to help you find some common ground. Just let them know that you were thinking of them, and looking forward to seeing them again when it’s possible.
Write them a letter or send a postcard. We live in an increasingly digital world, and so for a lot of kids, it is thrilling to receive something in the mail. I know of one story where an older woman faithfully wrote to a teenager for years, and that teenager, while they didn’t respond to every letter, they saved every letter in a box. Those letters built a relationship that is incredibly meaningful. A group from my church has been writing letters to children, and that has meant a lot to my elementary age kids.
This is a hard time for our university students. Many classes are virtual, meaning that students are sitting in their dorm rooms taking in content by video. It’s not ideal for the student or the professor. Send them a care package with some homemade goods. I loved receiving care packages when I was a university student, and that was long before a pandemic!
Provide resources for families to disciple their kids at home. It may not be possible for your church to provide quality content for families, but there are other churches who can do that, and who are willing to share their resources with families. I have been so encouraged by the Kingdom-growth mindset I see in churches. There is a genuine desire among churches to support one another.
Prior to the pandemic, our children and youth needed you. They needed to know that adults cared about them and welcomed them into the family. I’m increasingly recognizing that students aren’t leaving our churches because of a lack of quality programming, but because of a lack of feeling like they belong. What if there is opportunity in this pandemic to remind our children and youth that they do belong, that they are part of our family-in-Christ?