Our culture is conflicted over teenagers. Some days they are kids and other days they are young adults. Sometimes they need to be excused for their recklessness and other times they need to be respected for their contribution to society.
An example of this conflict played out recently on social media over pop star Camila Cabello. As a 15-year-old, Cabello made several racially insensitive posts on a social media site. When the posts were recently uncovered, 7 years later, the debate began. “She was a child. We can’t hold someone responsible for the dumb things they did in their teens,” some argued. While others countered, “The age of 15 is old enough to know better. She needs to be held accountable.”
We’ve seen many other examples of this same debate over the last several years. Teenagers have sparked change through nationwide movements, most notably over gun violence. They have met with politicians, spoken out on national television, and influenced legislation. While some dismissed them as ignorant kids, others lauded the leadership of the next generation.
But arguably no other young person has embodied this divide moreso than Greta Thunberg. Her name dominated the news cycle in 2019, with Time magazine naming her "Person of the Year." The 16-year-old garnered attention initially through her school strike for climate change in her home country of Sweden. Since then, she has become the global face of climate activism, with her efforts culminating in the world's largest climate demonstration in history.
Thunberg’s rare passion for a complex issue brought her the world’s gaze. And with that attention also came the world’s scrutiny and division. Those who sided with her placed her on a pedestal and crowned her as the leader the world needs. Those who sided against her belittled her as ignorant, naive, and propped up. Again, we see the conflict playing out. Teenagers are world-changers when we agree with them and immature children when we don’t.
Regardless of the politics and opinions on climate change, one thing is undeniable: a 16-year-old girl is impacting the world. As a student pastor, that gets me excited because it confirms something I believe deeply: we often underestimate young people. We sell them short. We set the bar too low. We make excuses for them.
In the church, we say things like:
"They aren’t ready for the 'adult' worship service yet. Their attention spans aren’t long enough. They will get bored. They need more fun and games. They don’t want to study the Bible. They can’t understand it. That’s too deep for them to handle. They are just kids."
Greta Thunberg and other young leaders in the world today prove that teenagers are capable. They are much more capable than we in the church often realize.
Teenagers are capable of thinking and learning. In school, they learn foreign languages and complex mathematical equations. They can handle some theology. They are tasked with reading and analyzing Shakespeare. They can handle the Bible. They voluntarily spend hours each week practicing piano, soccer, and theater. They can handle the spiritual disciplines.
Teenagers are capable of leading. Every Friday night in the fall, local high school football games feature student leaders on display. From the field to the band to the cheerleaders to the student section, you plainly see young people influencing and leading others. They have the ability to do the same thing in the local church. They can use that same leadership in their school for Christ and his mission. Like Greta demonstrates, young leadership and youthful charisma is contagious.
Teenagers are capable of challenging the status quo. For some reason, young people can upend traditions and social norms like no other group. When young people join together with a unified passion, adults take notice. They grab headlines and force change. This unique ability to shake things up reminds me of the early church in the book of Acts. What if the unified passion our students held was a desire to see their classmates come to Jesus? What if their rebellion and recklessness was harnessed for the kingdom of God? How might our local churches and communities be shaken up if teenagers were the ones to challenge the spiritual apathy of adults?
Teenagers are capable of impacting the world. Here is the bottom line: when young people are passionate, bold, and relentless, things change. Teenagers today are more connected through technology, more aware of the world’s needs, and more concerned with injustice. These unique qualities give them the potential for a huge impact on the world.
This generation could fulfill the Great Commission. They could reach the remaining unreached people groups. They could plant new churches in every city and revitalize the declining ones. They could baptize and disciple more new believers than any other generation before them.
But here’s the question: Will we help get them there? Will we hold before them this God-glorifying, kingdom-expanding vision? Will we call them to the task they were created for?
Or will we underestimate them? Will we write them off as “big kids”?
If Greta Thunberg can impact the world through climate activism, then teenage followers of Jesus can impact the world through the gospel.