Long ago a young boy sat down with some educated men of the city and conversed with them hours on end. He wasn’t supposed to be there, not just because of his age, but because his parents were traveling home with a bunch of friends and relatives and they thought he was with them. When they realized that he wasn’t, they hurriedly returned to the city and desperately searched for him. When they found him three frantic days later, they demanded to know why he’d done this. The boy, with no sign of fear or remorse, simply looked up at his parents and explained, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” The boy, of course, was Jesus, and his “Father’s house” was the Jewish temple (see Luke 2:41-52). We may be amazed by Jesus’ behavior here, but let’s consider his parents and the temple elders. Jesus was wisely obeying that adage “listen to your elders.” The adults in the story also appear to have been listening, but to their “younger.” The temple teachers conversed with and listened to the young man with respect and admiration. They could have brushed him off as a smart-aleck kid, but they didn’t. As for Joseph and Mary, I recall one parent saying that “they could have shaken him until his teeth rattled,” but they didn’t. In fact, though Mary didn’t fully understand the things Jesus was saying, she nonetheless “kept them in her heart.”
There is much we can learn from this story about how we should consider Jesus, but perhaps we can learn something about the general regard we ought to have for those younger than ourselves. Jesus himself even explained that our relationships with him may depend on how we relate to them! (Mark 9:37) Sadly, perhaps like those about whom the Apostle Paul counseled young Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12), we sometimes “think less of” or “look down on” those who are younger, failing to hear their heartfelt questions and convictions when theirs may be the very voices God wants us to hear.
Friends in Christ, and co-laborers in his Mission, we need to be listening to our “youngers,” and we especially need to be doing so for such a time as this. Around the world we see the church growing but also the many millions still with little or no access to the gospel. Meanwhile, the church in North America is in decline, and is especially so among young adults, who are increasingly unlikely to identify themselves as Christian.
What does this mean for the future of missions? The Barna Group, highly respected for its polling research, recently considered this, believing that the church must answer this question and related questions not for the next generation, but with the next generation. They listened to our “youngers.” In particular, they listened to “engaged Christians 18 to 34.” These are the young adults who do attend church and say that their commitment to Jesus is important in their lives. They are unique among their peers. “As the cultural influence of Christianity diminishes,” explains the Barna report, “those who continue in pursuit of Christ tend to mean it. They are Christian on purpose, not by default.” (The Future of Missions, page 80)
These are the “youngers” to whom we must listen. That’s what Barna did. In doing so, they learned some very interesting, and even encouraging things. Remarkably, half of these engaged churchgoing young adults are open to God’s call to serve overseas! And they want to be creative about it, saying that they are “definitely interested” in serving in one or more of the following missionary roles: business leader, artist, entrepreneur, church trainer.
While supportive of mission work, our “youngers” are not afraid to question the ways it has been done. This, too, we can appreciate. A third of them agree that some past mission work has been “unethical,” and 42% of them believe that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism.” What can you say? Our “youngers” are right, and we will do well to listen to them.
We will also do well to pray with them. Among Barna’s more discouraging finds was that while nearly 100% of engaged young adult Christians reported having a regular prayer practice, only half of them saw themselves praying specifically for missions in the future.
We can do this! We can listen to those unique young adults who are wonderfully committed to Christ and his Church. We can explore with them their interest in missions, and their tough questions. And we can pray with them, helping them move from their “worlds” to the unreached world, both of which God invites us to bring before him. A few of our WMPL workers will soon begin a new initiative of this nature, regularly gathering online with some college-age Christians to talk about commissioned living and to pray. We hope to do a lot of listening and learning. Pray that we do, and look for me to share more with you next month!