This week I was able to meet with a couple folks from a regional building supply company about possibly serving as a feeder for teen jobs. Essentially they want to see if teens working their way through our fledgling mentoring program can hire out to work for them. It was the second conversation we have had and it seems very promising. I cannot think of a more ideal company to work with when I hear and see their ethos towards their employees.
As often happens when I talk about teenagers with folks from older generations I end up talking about demographic trends that I both read about and experience. To some degree demographic trends are stereotypes and we all hate being categorized, but they are helpful lenses most of the time. They often help put a name or term to gaps between generations that would otherwise simply feel confusing. Sometimes the folks I work with are familiar with millennials and generation Z and sometimes they are not. But always, they resonate with some of the issues that I suggest they might be confronting when they feel frustrated with the "younger generation". You might think this is an old folks sort of problem, but I have watched folks from the younger end of Gen X do it as well. It is a natural reaction to what we find confusing.
Whenever I am in these situations I try to stress one thing: The issues you are facing with millennials in your work place are not primarily moral ones. We have a nasty tendency in our culture to see everything through a moral framework and it can often be really unproductive. Maybe it's our puritan roots. Some people attribute this to solely religion, but the truth is that I know many folks who place themselves outside a network of belief who moralize in the same way.
I think this is an important thing for us to remember as we think about how to do ministry to youth in new ways. What we see in teenagers is mostly a mirror of the adult world (and its priorities) that we have surrounded them with. Whatever they are, they are because of the framework in which they have grown up. And as with all generations, some of their traits will need to be softened, but others are simply sign posts of how the world is moving forward in new ways. The point is that if we don't dull the edge of our generational attitude as we look to innovate and create new ways of doing ministry among these teenagers, we will end up creating systems and structures that are less than productive...and might even be destructive. Worse, yet those ministries will be absent of hope and grace.
What I hear underneath all the moralisms, about millennials in particular, is a tone of fear. There is a sense of fear among the conversations because businesses and churches don't know how they will keep their current models running with new generations. And there is fear among parents in these conversations about how their children will "turn out". This of course bleeds into ministries in the church as well. Many of us know that fear sells. Many of us find it detestable when it becomes a kind of fear huckstering. And many of us can recognize it when it manifests itself from the pulpit in the flaming forms of damnation and condemnation and a picture of the Kingdom that has been reduced to angels, clouds, and harp filled repose. However, we are much more blind to the other forms of that same fear when we are buying it or selling it in the curriculum we purchase and the smaller and more localized conversations we have with parents, fellow ministers, and folks in our business communities. We might be even more blind to that fear when we are trying to innovate and create new things with our own hands, hearts, and minds. As most of us have experienced in one way or another, a gospel that is rife with fear tends to produce ministries filled with anxiety, control, subtle manipulations, and narcissists. When we are afraid, we will do anything and listen to anything. See: Donald Trump and Mark Driscoll. So what is a subtly afraid soul to do?
As we sail out into new ministry directions I think we need to think about how hope and grace might characterize our new ventures. All generations benefit from the wisdom of those who have come before them and both the old and young need to adjust to one another in order to thrive, but as the creators of millennial culture our older generations need to focus on helping millennials where they need it and harnessing their talents in other areas. We might ask whether what we are building and innovating with comes from a place of hope for the future that God has promised or a place of anxiety and terror. What if we kept asking the question, "What's possible?" Isn't that a question for Kingdom people? It might be good for instance to mine our teenagers for their feedback on whether we are answering the right questions as we try new things out. Are we speaking to the hopes that God is building within them? Are we helping them confront their own vacuums of trust and hope or are we simply foisting our present fears on their future plans? Good missionaries after all, figure out what the gospel has to say to the people they serve by listening at length before doing anything. If we want innovations that produce good fruit, then we need innovations based on hope, not moralisms. May the Lord of Hope and Grace be with you as you speak, write, minister, ponder, and innovate! May God's perfect love cast out all your fears and mine!