By Laurel Bunker
The streets in the neighborhood were relatively quiet. Pedestrians wandered down Dale Avenue, picking up speed as they stepped out and off of shiny new light rail trains. The hustle to get home or to the local establishment in order to put the day to rest seemed more pressing than exchanging pleasantries with others walking by, as most folks kept their sun glasses on, ear plugs in and heads down.
I had just come in from my front porch, a beautiful place that allows us to interact with as many people as will glance our way.
In an instant, however, the atmosphere in the streets began to change. Young people, with an equal sense of urgency as the light rail pedestrians had had just 30 minutes prior, flowed down side streets heading toward a large open parking lot across the street from my home. Voices of youth ran hot and high as did young bodies, destined for a collision course with one another.
Sticks were lifted high as if to play a game of baseball. But there was no ball to be thrown, there was no game to be played, only an unfortunate exchange of blows to bodies, which sent some kids to the hospital, a few to jail and the majority home with bruised egos and a sick recording of unnecessary violence.
This is not the neighborhood I remember growing up in, but it is the neighborhood that I live in and love.
This may seem like an extreme in the life of Millennials. Some reading this may believe that this kind of aggression is reserved for the urban core. You may struggle to find the relevance of my example to issues with youth and the church; but as an educator and as a pastor of youth and young adults for over two decades, I have found that youth from all walks of life, socioeconomic status, ethnic backgrounds and races are capable of many things, particularly if they have no intervention or guidance from those who could assist them.
Young people want love, safety and belonging more than they want money, cars and other niceties.
Without proper guidance, they feel unable to cope and feel helplessly unable to get out of the cycles they are in.
What a blessed opportunity the church has to step in to this time of challenge and to make an incredible impact that will remain. Our work does not have to be costly in terms of financial investment, though it will take some level of financial support. However, it will be costly in terms of time and effort.
What are some things that we as the body of Christ can do to intervene in the lives of young people? Here are five things I have found to be immensely helpful in my journeying with youth over the last 23 years:
1. Be an advocate for them and their success.
Everyone wants someone to believe in them. Youth need to know that someone sees them as more than mouthy or a problem to be dealt with. Invest in a young person. Find out what they are good at. Help them develop skills and gifts that are transferable and that they can take with them into life.
When they don’t know which way to turn, advocate for them, remind them that they matter and that if they remain focused on their goals, they can make it.
2. Invite them into your life and your home and your church.
Young people want love, safety and belonging more than they want money, cars and other niceties. Research proves this. Invite a small group of kids into your home or church on a day other than Sunday. Make a simple meal, bake cookies, play a game that can foster dialogue.
You will be surprised how much youth want to share their lives and their hearts with someone who is safe.
3. Listen more than you talk.
Allowing a young person to simply share what is on his or her heart and mind will do them a world of good. As you listen, be careful not to provide solutions or to fix their problems more than you hear what they are trying to say.
4. Help them identify solutions to their own challenges.
There are many organizations and agencies in each of our communities that are looking for ways to impact the lives of youth. From community centers and schools to para-church organizations and sports leagues and youth prevention services. Young people need to know that there are people who are for them and for their success.
Help a young person in your church or neighborhood navigate the challenges that they face by connecting them to programs that are geared toward their success. Teach them how to ask good questions—to not be ashamed to seek help and remain humble as others give them advice and counsel. They will be grateful for it.
5. Pray fervently and consistently for them.
When you don’t know what to do, pray. James tells us that the fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous person makes great power available. Unleash the power of prayer over your children, your neighbors, the kids who concern you in the community. They are somebody’s child, and they need to been seen as Christ sees them.
Laurel Bunker serves as the Dean of Campus Ministries and Campus Pastor at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she oversees the spiritual development initiatives of the campus while also managing a dynamic team of people who develop the missions, discipleship, prayer, outreach, and worship ministries for the University.
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