Empathize with Today’s Young People & Take Jesus’ Message Seriously
Growing Young is a book that can be easily read in small bites. Each chapter stands alone with its own message and data to be mulled over. However, they are part of a greater message and it is helpful to remember that they are pieces to a bigger puzzle. Different combinations will invoke a new perspective on the information shared, so I find it valuable to pair some specific chapters with each other; in particular, chapters 3 & 4.
As I worked through these two chapters, I found myself thinking that empathy is the closest we come to living the incarnation. Though we will never know what it is to be God incarnate on earth, we can follow Jesus’ way. We cannot follow Jesus’ way without taking his life and message seriously. Taking Jesus message seriously is living, leading with empathy.
Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many adults struggle to have empathy for our young people. I do not know why this is the case for so many adults, but I do suspect it has something to do with their own struggle to reflect upon and heal from their own childhood wounds.
I’ll never forget the Sunday when I stood outside to greet and hug one of my high school youth as she and her mom walked toward the sanctuary. This youth group member struggled from extreme anxiety in such a way that her life was a constant battle to be lived. I was working hard to show her support, encourage her, and help her fight the restrictions this anxiety was tightening around her life. It was a serious struggle and very painful for her emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As I hugged her, checked in, then let her get into worship, an older woman from our congregation walked up to me. She asked what was wrong with her. For privacy’s sake I gave a brief, but vague response about the hard time she’s going through. My heart sunk at the woman’s response. She quickly said something about how easy kids have it today, but also included something about growing up with an alcoholic father. I did my best to respond in a way that supported my youth, but also didn’t ignore the information she had just shared with me. She just continued into the church, conversation over.
I’ve considered this interaction many times since, struggling with the best way to understand what happened. I’ve wished for things to be different and quickly recognized the empathy gap for many of our older members and youth in the congregation. Yet, I didn’t fully realize what this particular experience was about until I read these two chapters. Perhaps it’s not so much that adults can’t remember their younger years, but instead, for many adults, it may be that they still live with the pain of those younger years every day without even realizing it.
Rather than letting these memories become entry points for connection, empathy, and support, they become blocks on which to stand in judgement. Unless we heal from our own childhood wounds we will never be able to look over those blocks to reach out a hand and stand with the young people in our midst.
This is why we need the cross. This is why the life of Jesus is serious business no matter what our age. We all have a cross to bear, but we must face it. We must face those old wounds that drive us apart from each other and put them to death on the cross. We must seek forgiveness and become reconciled to one another. In our reconciliation we are healed and no longer bound by old baggage so that we can see each other clearly, so that we can live the love of Christ freely in relationship with one another.
Over 80 percent of the young people in the congregations we surveyed agree that their church involvement decreases their stress… Congregational involvement seems to lessen anxiety by reminding young people of what’s important and inviting them to step away from the chaos of their lives to refocus on loving God and others (102).
Here are a few of my favorite empathy-building ideas ideas that are given in chapter 3. You’ll have to read the chapter for more explanation and ideas.
- Respond with grace, love, and mission
- Stereotype no more
- When you see something new, confusing, and maybe even offensive in culture, ask ‘why?’
- Walk through your facility and worship service with the eyes of a young person
- Learn the name of one young person… or two.. or even three
- Don’t leave singles feeling singled out
As a church, we have the opportunity to know Jesus more deeply through our empathy with one another. Through our empathy, we embody Jesus’ message and Jesus’ life.
The church embodies Jesus’ message – not a story of shame but of redemption. Not a narrative of being cast out based on sin but one of being embraced and restored (128).
Empathy can be developed over time.. Take Jesus’ message seriously. Face the cross with your old wounds that need the healing only Jesus can bring. Face your neighbor, your very young neighbor with much less life experience than you, and reach out your hand to them. Embrace them as you are embraced by the very real love of Jesus. Let’s be the church together.
I am thrilled to be part of the #growingyoung launch team for Fuller Youth Institute. The book is Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. If you would like to order your own copy, or would like to learn more about this book and research, please visit Churches Growing Young.