As youth ministers we see teenagers a little differently than most adults. For many adults, teenagers represent a negative force to be avoided…or subdued…or even punished. For us, teenagers are a bright energy God puts in our lives that we have the privilege to work with. We want all teens to be loved and cared for and transformed by God’s love. And when we see teenagers going through a rough situation, we feel their pain a little more intensely than other adults.
Take an experience I had at McDonald’s recently.
I smiled at the teenage girl who took my order and said some friendly things to her…like I always do when I get to interact with kids. She seemed new at the job, so I wanted to encourage her. I’m sure you do the same thing. I took my food and sat down to eat.
I was almost finished with those oh so tasty fries when I heard a woman raising her voice in anger. She was standing at the counter yelling at the teenage girl who’d taken my order. Apparently there’d been some problem with her order, and the woman didn’t like the way the teen responded. I heard the angry woman yell at her (expletives deleted), “No,’sorry’s’ not going to cut it, sweetheart! I don’t like your attitude, and I want to see the manager! I’ve never been so angry in my whole life as I am right now!” And on and on. She continued her profanity-laced tirade, and everyone in the restaurant got to hear her berate the teenage server.
My heart went out to the young employee who was the brunt of this verbal abuse. I don’t care what she did or how badly she’d messed up the person’s order. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. There are many ways a person can express dissatisfaction besides verbally attacking someone. I was angry that the woman felt it was OK to treat a teenager that way. I doubt she would have treated an adult like that.
As I think about it now, I still clench my fists and tighten my jaw. I wanted so badly to do something, but I was frozen in my seat. It was so upsetting that I’ve said out loud (in the privacy of my home) what I wish I would have said that day to that abusive person.
What would you have done? I mean really what would you have done? Not what you would have wanted to do.
I wanted to stand up to this adult. To speak in soft and civil tones and say something like, “I seriously doubt this is the angriest you’ve ever been. I imagine you’re angry a lot if you think you can treat someone like this in public. You’re a big person to scream at someone making minimum wage, doing her best to get your burger and fries that cost…what?…five dollars? Here’s $20 from my own wallet. It should cover the price of the meal. Now please leave and don’t come back.” I wanted to make it clear it wasn’t cool to treat a teenager–or anyone–that way. I’m sure I would have gotten an earful from the angry woman, but I could have handled it much better than the poor kid at the counter did. I wanted that teenager to know not all adults are that way. I wanted her to experience a bit of grace in a horrible situation.
But I didn’t. I just sat there and prayed for the young girl.
Eventually the angry woman left (hooray!). As I walked out a few minutes later, I noticed the teenager was still taking people’s orders, but tears were streaming down her face. I prayed for her some more. Had there not been a long line of people, I would have gone up to her and told her that person was a jerk. I would have encouraged her. But I didn’t. It still hurts me to think of what she was going through. And I didn’t do anything. Some youth minister I am.
We know that teenagers’ lives aren’t all happy and carefree. They carry a load of issues from work and home and school, and they’re just beginning to figure out how to deal with those issues. They don’t have the experience yet to handle adult stuff, but they’re facing it. As spiritual leaders in the lives of not just our teenagers, but all teenagers, we can bring grace to them by putting them in positions to succeed. We can’t remove them from situations where mean people verbally assault them. But we can give them experiences that build their confidence and help them grow in God’s love. That way they can better manage the pains and hurts of a world that’s often more abusive than it should be.
And I know of no better way than taking kids on mission trips.
There are many benefits of taking kids on mission trips, but one of them is they put kids in a position to succeed. They’re given a project to deal with that comes with a built-in set of obstacles to overcome. They experience first-hand that with God’s help they have the ability to do things they never thought they could do. Whether that’s living in less than ideal conditions, managing a different culture, completing a difficult work project, meeting different people, or whatever. They’re immersed in a series of challenges…and they get through it.
Oh they might not have someone yelling and swearing at them like the counter girl at McDonald’s, but they’ll face other issues. They might serve people who are demanding or rude, work in areas where security is a big concern, or encounter people who’s faith is very different from their own. But on a mission trip, you and your other adult leaders are there to help debrief and counsel them in the tough situations. You’re there in all those teachable moments to help them see a Christ-like attitude in all circumstances. With your guidance they’ll grow and develop more confidence and self-esteem. They’ll make a difference for other people in ways no obnoxious person who yells at them in public can ever take away.
I was privileged to serve at one of our Workcamps in Rochester, NY two weeks ago. Rochester is a city with all the urban issues that come with it. Our staff worked with local authorities and the participating youth groups to make sure everyone was safe and followed our security procedures. Work crews of teenagers witnessed drug deals in the homes of neighbors and heard just about every profane word in the book from the streets. There were many challenges. One night there was a scuffle in the parking lot of the school where we stayed. Local pre-teens taunted the school custodial staff and a fight broke out between them. The police got involved. One of the local kids ended up getting put in the back of the police car. It was a frightening mess.
But at the time that was going on there were students and adults inside the school experiencing God’s love in our program. A girl came up to me in tears to thank us for all we’d done for her that week. She said, “I love this place.”
Youth leaders thanked us for managing the security concerns there. One man said, “We knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this camp. And that’s exactly why we wanted to bring our kids here.”
The kids there learned first hand what God can do. They were put in a tough position, but a position to succeed nevertheless. And they did.
Yes, it’d still hurt if an adult ever attacked them in public like the woman at McDonalds. But they have that much more experience to know…really know…that God is with them and loves them. Even if youth leaders like me fail to stand up for one of those young people we love so much.
Doc Newcomb is a pastor, youth pastor, and Program Manager for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups.