I led the youth group this evening. Or more factually, a mom from the congregation and I together led the youth group. Or perhaps more truthfully, I ought to say, the youth group led me.
By that I don’t mean that they dictated the evening or ran me ragged (well, maybe a bit ragged!). What I do mean is that they led to a fresh appreciation of what a challenging job youth leadership is. Youth leaders and pastors deserve medals of honor for their readiness to mess it up and hang out with kids and simply love them. It is so easy in our society to write off other segments of the population with hasty and critical judgments. Those old people. Those teenagers. Those foreigners. Those newcomers. Those men. Those women. Those Christians. Those non-believers. And so on.
Yet I believe it is precisely in meeting all of those people, whatever the label we might, in our anxiety, throw at them, that God most stretches us, and especially, stretches our hearts. We so easily segregate ourselves into our comfortable cliques, yet it is in meeting and living with folks who are different from us that we find ourselves also most often blessed. We might even be surprised that they aren’t very different from us after all.
What I also mean by saying that the youth group led me is that they reminded me of what it is simply to have fun together and live out a spirit of welcome and respect. Ours is a very mixed bag of kids—some from Christian backgrounds, others with no church connection. Their family backgrounds are all over the map. They attend different schools. They span a range of ages. Yet somehow they find this gathering at youth group to be a place of safety and grace. They may try to be as outrageous as they can, yet the very readiness of the group seems to take off the hard edges before you know it. Maybe they intuitively recognize that they don’t have to try so hard to be something they aren’t—that they are cherished for just who they are. In a sense, they modeled exactly what the church ought always to be.
Which leads to the other grace that I encountered this evening. I don’t know most of the kids because I haven’t been involved with the youth group directly for years. Some of the church kids, I see Sunday mornings, but even they I don’t get to spend time with very often. It’s too easy to leave that to the youth pastor, and it is my loss for not connecting more. The kids showed up and who is there to lead them but some grey-haired old preacher, and they could care less. They had no expectations on me other than that I would let them have fun being together. And that I could do. I didn’t have to be smart or cool or hip or anything else. They let me be me. And that is as significant a gift as I know. It’s what God does with all of us.
So I am not exaggerating when I say I was humbled to have spent this evening with these twenty odd youth people. My ears are still ringing from their volume. Their energy astounds me. As did their questions, their longing to be accepted, their need simply to be respected and loved as children of God, even if they aren’t certain who God is. It was humbling to be in their midst. I believe the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.