If The Children Are Our Future, Then We Are Squandering It (Why I Am A Youth Pastor)

When I tell people that I am a Youth Pastor, I tend to get the following responses:

“Thank you for working with our youth.”

“That’s a really important job.”

“It must be tough to handle all those teenagers.”

“You volunteered to do that?”

The general mood of these responses is that youth work is important to our future. There’s an acknowledgement that youth today face very different issues than the ones that previous generations have. Even at the tender age of 32, I have a hard time relating to some of the cultural and generational issues of the young people that I minister to.

I took some time to think about what makes us so different several months ago. I came up with a couple of facts about this generation of young people (between the ages of 12 and 19), in order to help frame the difference:

The oldest person in my youth group was 4 years old on September 11, 2001. The youngest member of my youth group wasn’t even born yet. Neither of them are old enough tor remember a world before the Twin Towers fell.

The youngest member of my youth group was born the same year that we invaded Iraq, and was almost done with elementary school when we ended combat operations.

It’s a little strange to look at a group of young people and realize that the events that have shaped and defined your entire adult life are simple realities for them. To me, war and terrorism were things that disrupted my way of life. For them, war and terrorism has been their entire life.

More than that – more than actual events – I think the thing that separates my generation from this new generation of youth is the climate of fear that has pervaded our nation since September 11, 2001. They have never known a world which felt safe and secure.

This became very clear to me on a night a few months ago. We decided to hold a candlelight vigil shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown. Rather than confine it to Michael Brown’s death – and thus make a controversial political statement in a small Tennessee town – we expanded our vigil to include all recent victims of violence throughout the world. Some of the other youth leaders got some pictures together for a slideshow, we had our worship band play some soft music, and we sat and prayed for the victims of a world gone mad.

Afterwards, I asked them, as a group, how they felt about the stories they were hearing out of the media. And, a little boy of 11 raised his hand and said, “I feel afraid. If this can happen to someone my age, it can happen to me.”

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I feel afraid.

At 11 years old, the only thing this young man should have to fear is rejection by potential romantic interests, or bad grades on tests, or whether or not he’ll make the football team. When I was 11, I certainly wasn’t afraid of someone blowing up a plane that I was on. I wasn’t afraid of getting shot in the street by a police officer. I didn’t have to fear that my father or mother was going to be sent to war and never come back. I didn’t have to worry that my Mom or Dad just lost their job, or couldn’t get a job, and that I wouldn’t be able to eat next week – much less go to college and have a life of my own later.

Our time was a more restless, difficult time than that of our parents, but our time was still an easy time. But, for the youth of today, anxiety is the word of the day. Fear is the prevailing mood.

Is it any wonder that 11% of young people will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder by the time that they are 18? 8% will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, with only 18% of those getting any kind of treatment.

Is it any wonder that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 12-18?

Is it any wonder that today, in this country, there will be 5400 suicide attempts (on average) among young people?

Those are the sobering statistics for youth overall.

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But, there is a special class of youth today for whom this is a much bigger problem. For youth who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered, the risk is much higher. The Jason Foundation, an organization that works to help end the “Silent Epidemic” of youth suicide, estimates that over 80% of LGBT students have faced harassment and bullying at their school, specifically because of their sexual orientation. Over 60% of these students have reported feeling unsafe at school.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, LGBT students are two times less likely to finish high school or pursue college degrees. LGBT youth make up 40% of the total youth homeless population, with the most frequently cited reason for homelessness being either parental rejection or being forced out of their home after coming out.

Once homeless, LGBT youth are far more likely to attempt or complete suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, due to rejection from charities and shelters. Gay male youth are much more likely to become sexual victims through prostitution or assault.

Our future, the most important group of people we have in our nation today, are sleeping out on the streets tonight. They are selling their bodies for food. They are killing themselves in droves.

And we aren’t just letting it happen. We are making it happen.

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This epidemic has a face for me. We have faced a few suicide attempts in the last year within our own youth group. In a group that averages 20 or less, the number we have faced is significant.

I cannot tell you the stories of those young people that we have almost lost in my own community. But, there is someone who perfectly encapsulates the way that we are failing our youth today, the way that we are squandering the only hope we have of a future.
leelahalcornv3

Leelah Alcorn, born Joshua Alcorn, was a 17-year-old transgender teen. Leelah reported that she felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body from the age of 4. At 14, she discovered the word “transgender” and ecstatically told her mother. Her mother did not share the enthusiasm, and told her that it was “just a phase” and that Leelah would never be a “real girl.”

At the age of 16, Leelah asked to go through gender transition therapy. Her parents sent her to Christian “conversion therapy” instead.

Her parents isolated her, taking her out of school and not allowing her to access any social media for over 5 months.

Her parents told her that she was going to hell. They accused her of attacking their image. They degraded her.

On December 28th, 2014, Leelah stepped in front of a semi-truck that was driving on the highway. Her mother called it an accident, and talked about how much she loved her “son.”

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Leelah Alcorn was a good Christian youth, with the slight problem that she had a gender identity that didn’t match her body.

And the Church refused to understand her.

And her parents refused to accept her.

And now we must all mourn her.

And we do all mourn her, because who knows what Leelah might have become, if she had lived in a world with hope instead of fear?

Fear is what killed Leelah Alcorn. Fear is what is killing so many of these young people before they ever have a chance to grow up. Fear that there is no future, no happiness, no success, no understanding.

No hope.

And this last statement is why it’s a Christian problem. We are supposed to be the givers of hope, the purveyors of Good News, and we have become peddlers of fear instead.

In the New Testament, 1 John 4:18, Followers of Jesus are told, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

I am a Youth Pastor because I believe that what young people need is unconditional love, and hope in the future. I am a Youth Pastor because I know that the world is a scary place, and young people need places and people in their lives that make them feel safe and accepted. I am a Youth Pastor because there are far too many Youth Pastors who spend far too much time giving young people more to be afraid of – fear of hell, fear of sinning, fear of displeasing God – and I need to be an alternative. I am a Youth Pastor because I believe that the words of Jesus are Good News, and I believe that the youth of today have a great need to hear Good News. They need it after growing up in a world where there is so much Bad News.

I don’t know if I’ve made much sense today. I know that I’ve wandered from youth suicide, to youth homelessness, to LGBT youth issues. To me, these are not separate issues, and they all hold equal importance and urgency. If we do not do something about this climate of fear soon, we will stop seeing youth who are afraid and start seeing a generation of adults who are cynical and jaded by their 20s.

I will leave you with a video that I watched a few weeks ago, that really touched me. It’s some spoken word poetry, and it’s wonderful if you watch all the way to the end.

If you are a young person who is having thoughts and feelings of fear, hopelessness or harming yourself, please seek help. If you cannot talk to your parents or a trusted adult, call:

1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

If you are a parent of a young person, talk to them. Seek to understand them, rather than judge. And, if you feel that your young person is at risk of suicide, ASK. You can find resource materials here.

And if you are a Youth Pastor, watch the following video.

Grace and Peace to you,

Michael Woywood

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