One of my greatest joys in youth ministry was the privilege of taking the youth of our church on a journey of discovering God’s heart for justice and what it means to follow Jesus in an unjust world. It was a journey that started with humble intentions but was to see some tremendous transformations and actions on behalf of the youth involved.
I had the privilege of witnessing the youth of our church speak at local youth events about child exploitation as well as to convince 500 of their friends to sign postcard petitions calling for clothes manufacturers to ban the use of Uzbekistan cotton. One Christmas the youth set a goal of raising enough money to fund a community school through the TEAR Useful Gift catalogue (they ended up raising enough money for 6). In 2013 they helped organise a local event to promote Australian Aid that got local TV coverage, and last year a member of our youth group convinced 11 of her friends to spend a week with her in a makeshift prison cell in the middle of her State High School to protest against children being held in detention.
Yet, to be honest, as cool as all these actions were, what made me most proud of the youth that I got to work with was their daily commitment to living lives of justice as they followed after Jesus. These actions were the result of inner transformation, as the youth of our church gained a greater understanding of what ‘justice’ means.
Justice – often understood as an act of charity is so much more than that. The Hebrew word for justice is ‘mispat’ and it simply means “as God intended’. As this concept was taught and explored with youth in our church it also became applied. These youth were spurred on by a desire to see our world as God intends, they understood that to faithfully pray “Your Kingdom Come” began with transformation in their own lives and a seeking of God’s Kingdom to invade our world as they humbly submitted their lives to God’s will.
In recent years I have been asked on a number of occasions – “How do we lead the Youth in our care on this justice journey? How do we capture the hearts of the youth we lead with God’s heart for justice?” I don’t believe there is any formula, or secret recipe, I believe it is a result of honest authentic discipleship, but as I reflect over my years in youth ministry I have come up with five tips that may assist others as they seek to engage youth with justice issues.
1. Allow justice to lie at the centre of the Gospel.
I believe the first mistake we make is when we treat justice as something additional to the gospel rather that being at its very core. We need to talk to our youth about why Jesus came, we need to tell the story of Jesus standing in the middle of the synagogue and declaring his reason for coming as he reads the words of the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. We need to recapture justice as more than simply acts of charity and rather understand it as Kingdom restoration, the world being returned to as God intends.
2. We must pray for justice with our Youth.
Prayer must not be simply the tool we use to begin and end our youth nights, but rather it is through Prayer that we join with our creative Father in his mission for the world. May we teach our youth to pray “your Kingdom come” and invite them to act in response to these prayers, to see God’s Kingdom come in their families, in their communities and in the world. I believe we need to teach our kids to pray prayers of lament as well as prayers of hope and transformation. We need to stop teaching our kids to pray “Lord what is your will for my life” and rather pray instead “Lord how I may I serve your will with my life”.
3. We need to tell stories
We need to tell the dangerous stories of Jesus, the ones where he gave the name ‘daughter’ to the woman ostracised by her community for 12 years, the ones where he touches the untouchables and breathes life into dead corpses. We need to tell our youth about the Jesus who challenged the religious law that bound people up rather than offered freedom. But we also need to tell the stories of those that have been touched by the commands of Christ and acted upon them, so may we tell the stories of William Wilberforce and Saint Telemachus (google him). Let us also tell stories of hope and transformation, of the communities throughout our world who are being transformed through the aid and development of others in partnership.
4. Attempt the “too big”!
Let’s not be the ones that tell the youth of today that changing the world is too hard, or too difficult, but as their mentors may we be willing to walk alongside them as they begin the life long journey of justice as they follow after Christ. May we be there to encourage them in the tough times and to celebrate with them during the good, may we remember to laugh, but most importantly may we be their fellow sojourners as they explore what it means to respond to Christ in this unjust world. During my time in youth ministry I had the privilege of working with youth who didn’t believe in the impossible, when I thought it would be too hard to take a group of teenagers to a developing country, it was Emily (17) that taught me it was possible. When I thought that speaking up for Asylum Seekers in Central QLD would be too confronting it was Hannah (16) who told me it was time to speak up. As Margaret Mead famously stated “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
5. Lead by Example.
It’s the age old adage that you can’t lead anyone where you haven’t been. Whether you embrace it or not, you are a major role model to the youth you lead, they are not simply listening to your words by they are watching your life. A couple years ago I was sitting with a bunch of the youth from our church and happened to look down at their feet and realised that 8 of the 12 youth sitting next to me were all wearing the same brand of shoes to me. The truth is the youth you lead will imitate you, that’s a reality of youth ministry, so may we give them genuine examples to follow.
Not sure where to start?, TEAR Australia has a bunch of resources as well as church engagement coordinators in each state who are more than willing to assist and support you as you lead your youth on the justice journey, you can contact TEAR through its website www.tear.org.au. If you are based in Queensland contact me and we’ll have a coffee. There is also a whole range of new resources being added to myyouthleader.com.au with a Justice focus over the coming months, look out for them.
This article was written by Michael Trafford, Church Engagement Coordinator for Qld and NT, TEAR Australia