How we talk about our young people matters. In fact, it’s theological!
A well-meaning church member recently came up to me and asked if any of “the youth” would like to participate in an upcoming service project. At another time one of our sweet older members asked me if any of “your youth” wanted to serve at the upcoming senior adult luncheon. This actually happens quite often, and I’m fairly certain that this does not just happen at the churches I’ve served.
Almost always these requests flow out of a pure heart of wanting to see our young people engaged in the life of the church, however the chosen words reveal an underlying theological problem in modern youth ministry … most youth ministries at the local church level operate strictly as separate age-level ministries that take place at certain times, in certain rooms of the building, with a staff person and/or key adult leaders. The common language “the youth” and “your youth” is simply a symptom of the the gap that exists between young people and the adult congregation. The solution to bridging this gap begins in our understanding of the local church.
The local church is a family of faith.
One of the primary pictures of the local church we see in scripture is that we are a family. In Matthew 12:50 Jesus says that “anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (NLT).” Also, in Galatians the main metaphor that Paul uses to describe the local church is a family. Paul’s main point was that in Christ we are adopted into God’s family and are now brothers and sisters, therefore all the social distinctions that exist in society no longer matter in God’s family (see Galatians 3:26-29). This is huge for youth ministry in local churches, because if we are brothers and sisters in Christ then there must be a sense of ownership among the adult congregation for our young people. It’s a movement from “those youth,” “the youth,” and “your youth” to “our youth.”
“Our” is a powerful word.
Imagine what would happen if every adult in a local church saw the young people in their church as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Imagine what would happen if the adults in your local congregation moved from “the youth” to “our youth.” This shift will not automatically mean you’ll have an influx of volunteers or that youth and adults will automatically begin connecting with one another. However, the words we use are powerful, and the helping a congregation shift to inclusive language is one step towards growing a sense of common responsibility to know, love, and guide young people along their discipleship journey.
How to make the change
It doesn’t happen automatically or quickly, but here are a few practical steps:
- Start with your own language. Start paying attention to your own words. How often do you say “those youth,” “the youth,” etc.? Be diligent in using inclusive language for the young people in your church: our 7th grade girls, our high school guys, etc. Make “our youth” part of your daily language.
- Encourage your youth ministry volunteers to do the same. Challenge them to pay attention to how they refer to the young people in your congregation. Gently remind them that you’re a family of faith.
- Encourage your senior pastors to use “our youth” language from the pulpit. This will be a huge step towards helping the congregation make this move.
- Respectfully correct people. Gently correct people in the church when they use “those, the, your” language. Do everything in your power not to come across as snarky, but gently remind them that “the youth” are “our youth.”
The local church is a family of faith, which makes us brothers and sisters in Christ. This means “the” youth are “our” youth … our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bottom line: our language matters!