Misconception 2: “We Are So Grateful for the Work that You Do”
I cannot tell you how many times the above pseudo-compliment, or some variation of it, has been offered me. “I’m so glad” or “It is so good to see that someone is reaching out to these kids” or “is working with ‘the youth’ in this city” or “is helping to keep them off of ‘the streets’ ” (see Misconception 1 for more on the last one). Translated bluntly: Thank God someone (i.e., someone other than me) is taking care of this problem (i.e., these delinquent kids).
It’s an often-uttered, ‘mixed bag’ sort of statement. It is equal parts well-intended gratitude + genuine admiration + disdainful disinterest + relieved escape. People will lean more heavily on certain parts over others, but frankly, it’s a thorough blend of honest but misguided praise and a blatant cop-out. At the end of the day, all earnestness of sentiment aside, I think we misunderstand the nature of both the work and the gratitude.
Let’s first examine the latter: the gratitude. More often than not, this sense of thankfulness is based in evasion—a “glad-I-dodged-that-bullet” kind of a thing. Though, in this case, it’s really more of a draft-dodger’s relief than a bullet-dodger’s, because that which is being escaped is more like enlistment than it is execution (though it could be argued that the former is a prerequisite for the latter).
The fact of the matter is that the gratitude expressed is less in response to the work being done than it is to the relief that someone else is doing it. Many parents are grateful because they can put their kids into ‘youth groups’ (or send their kids to ‘youth centers,’ like the one I work at) to relieve them of the burden of parenting.
For some adults, their perception of these kids is enough for them to detest the idea of interacting with them. Most often where I live, the kids are judged by a combination of their ethnicity, income level, and street address (which are usually considered synonymous). At the same time, the rhetorical ideals of these adults prohibit them from disregarding the kids altogether. So when they see someone like me who is willing to spend 20 hours a week letting my kids know they’re worth my time, the adults breathe a sigh of self-reprieve when they can thank someone else for the work they successfully avoided doing.
So then, let’s look at the work. Okay, so we’re glad that someone is doing it, but why? What does it matter? What’s the magnificent benefit of this toilsome labor? Is the work for which we’re thankful the real work needing to be done?
Is it enough that these ‘hoodlum’ kids have a few dedicated role models standing by at every opportunity to teach them some civilized manners, to correctly modify their misbehavior, and to plant the seeds of a more positive (a.k.a., socially compliant) attitude? What does it mean if the only thing we are concerned about is making kids act ‘better’? What are we saying about these kids—what are we saying to these kids—with our insistence on performance? You can see this when schools put budgets and standardized test scores over their desire to see their students foster a hunger for learning. You can it see when churches care more about forcing kids into quasi-religious moral molds than whether their vulnerable hearts know the protection of God’s unfailing love.
Our view of our kids (as parents, teachers, youth pastors, youth workers of any kind) is so diminished from God’s vision of His kids that, instead of yearning to see the culmination of His design take shape in them, we set for our kids goals of behavioral achievement and then evaluate them based on their performance in achieving said goals.
If that indeed is my job at the youth center, then Christ have mercy, because not only will these kids continually disappoint and fall short of that standard, I myself will forever disappoint and fall short of it, too (both in holding them to it and upholding it myself). It’s the tension between following human-instituted laws and receiving divinely-given grace.
Now don’t get me wrong, discipline is a part of my job, and I want as much as anyone to see my kids make good choices, do well in school, be respectful of authority, and above all walk with God. But am I willing to walk with them through that process, the way He does? Am I willing to hope for them, to pray for them, to look through God’s eyes and see who He made them to be even when they seem so far from ever becoming it? Am I willing to be with them in the interim—between their present flaws and yet unseen transformation—and still love them?
That is God’s work. And, for my part, I am grateful for it and grateful to take part in it.
Misconception 3: The Trouble with Categorization
When institutions of any kind (churches, schools, non-profits) create programs for no-longer-children-though-not-yet-adult people is that the institutions seem to have difficulty in knowing what to name them, what they should be called, how they should be classified. Because, like I said, they’re not really so little anymore—they’re not toddling grade-schoolers—but they’re also not yet grown—they lack the discernment and maturity which is supposed to come with adulthood. (Whether it actually does is perhaps another blog post.)
This turbulent period of life has accrued various titles: simply ‘young people’ or ‘young adults,’ ‘teens’ or ‘teenagers’ (there are even ‘tweens’ now, which is slightly less frightening than the fact that my spellcheck isn’t correcting it with a jagged, red underline), and we’ve also recently developed the term ‘adolescents’ for these citizens of no age group.
Probably the most widely-used, especially in the context of creating programs for this age range, is ‘the youth.’ Thus we have youth groups, youth centers, youth sports, youth camps, youth ministry; we hear things like “the youth are the future of [the Church, America, etc.]” and hip, popular music artists come out with hip, popular songs like this or this or this.
The youth; as if they embody the very state of being youthful, the very quality which they all share, and often the only quality by which anyone will perceive them. Their youngness (along with any and all subsequent connotations, positive and negative) becomes the thing by which they are identified and by which they identify themselves. Think of anytime you’ve ever heard someone flippantly remark that “youth is wasted on the young,” or some other similar adage. I’m not saying there’s no truth to the statement, but I am saying that this kind of verbal pessimism is as easily absorbed into us by making or thinking such remarks as it is absorbed into the kids about whom or to whom we make the remarks.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to take ownership. I mean this both in the way of ‘Pt. 2’ above, taking part in God’s work with these kids, and in the way of claiming these kids as our own. Adopting them in a way, like God Himself adopted us. And then naming them—by which I simply mean drawing out the good, redemptive things which God has placed inside them, rather than plastering them with negative stereotypes.
You may notice in these posts that I often refer to ‘my kids.’ I don’t know if I’ve made it clear, but I’m referring to the kids I work with at the youth center. At what point I started calling them that I don’t know, but I do know that I honestly feel that they are mine; I am responsible for them. More than trying to ‘understand’ them by categorizing them, I just love them and in a way I’ve adopted them. I think we’re supposed to feel that way, supposed to welcome unconditionally in all the orphans we come across, to receive such children in Jesus’ name and thus receive God, instead of pushing our own selfish agenda, whatever that may be.
I’ve already gone over my word limit, so let me finish simply by putting some of Jesus’ words from Mark 9 (this is in response to His disciples bickering over who was the greatest):
And He said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And He took a child and put him in the midst of them, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the Father who sent Me.”