BY CHRISSY WESTBURY Today’s blog post is guest-written by Chrissy Westbury, a Louisville Seminary Master of Divinity student from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Colossians 3:12-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
This passage from Colossians was the theme passage at the Massanetta Springs Middle School Youth Conference this year, and I attended the conference with six middle school youths from a local congregation.
I often hear complaints and concerns about the youth of today: they are entitled, self-absorbed, apathetic, and obsessed with instant gratification. However, my experience with these six youth and the dozens of others I met at Massanetta reminded me that these youths could teach most adults a thing or two about compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. During the course of the four days I spent on the quite literal mountaintop with more than 200 young teenagers, I regained my hope for the future of the church.
It is easy to look at the church, and at the North American religious landscape as a whole, and become overwhelmed to the point of despondency. There is no doubt that our congregations are growing older and shrinking. The relevance of the church in the twenty-first century is in question. We cannot seem to attract or keep young families, we struggle to find volunteers, and the sense of community and family that many of us remember from our churches growing up seems to be fading. In a fast-paced world of constant movement, how can we ask people to be still and know God? How can we compete with sports, brunch and Netflix for those precious hours on Sunday morning? How can we tear young people away from their devices long enough to engage in deep discourse around the Word?
But, here’s the thing - these young teens that I met in the mountains of Virginia are not only capable of that discourse, they are thirsty for it. They gladly put away their devices for the vast majority of those four days (they were only allowed to have them during their brief moments of free time in their rooms) and immersed themselves in theological conversations guided by high school students just a few years older than they. Adults participated in the conversations, but only peripherally. The guidance was offered by high school “Enablers” and the bulk of the discourse centered on the thoughts and words of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds.
When asked about a moment they felt God at work, or a time when they needed to ask for or offer forgiveness, they were not entitled or apathetic teenagers. They were people of strong faith with stories to tell – some uplifting and others soul-crushing – of their own journeys. They listened to one another with compassion and openness that I have rarely seen in adult conversations around questions of theology. They accepted one another with humility and meekness, regardless of whether they agreed with or understood the other’s thoughts on a particular topic. They demonstrated in every way what it means to clothe oneself in love.
As I returned from this mountaintop moment, I was thrust back into the world of social media and the evening news. Pundits and presidential candidates were all competing to see who could speak the loudest, assuming that their voice was the only one that mattered. Grown adults seemed incapable of treating one another with kindness and compassion, of stopping long enough to consider, with humility, what the other side had to say. It was a toxic spill of negativity and hopelessness. And all I wanted to do was return to the teenagers, to sit quietly in their circle as they explored their faith, their strength, and their world together.
There was so much passion for a better world, so much hope, and yes, idealism. There were good answers and even better questions. And most of all, there was kindness, compassion, humility, and love.