In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays Professor John Keating, the new English teacher at an all-boys school. In his first classroom time with his new students, Keating walks through the class whistling, leaving the students wondering, “What’s up with this guy?” He continues to walk out of the room.
Curious, the students follow him out of the room where they find Professor Keating standing next to a trophy case. In this scene, Keating has the students lean in closely to the trophy case to listen to the voices of the past. He begins, in a husky and ghostly whisper, to say, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”
The wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes (see 11:9-12:7, 13) is whispering to its readers, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.” The wisdom writer guides us through the tension of being youthful and growing old. “Seize the day” is fundamental to the wisdom writer. We must not wait until we have grayed to seize the day, but as Keating challenges his students to, in our youth.
Those of us who work with youth have a responsibility to whisper to our students, “Carpe Diem! Seize the day!” Today’s youth are not the “church of tomorrow”, but rather they are the church of today – the church of right now. We need to open up spaces and places for them to be the church. We need to be in dialogue with them as we discern who God is calling us to be as the church. Kenda Creasy Dean writes in the book she co-authored with Andrew Root The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, “God calls youth to become ‘practical theologians’ in their own right, not for the sake of the youth in the church basement, but for the sake of the church.”
But no one said it would be easy. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years when it comes to whispering “carpe diem” to youth:
Start in the Basement. Before throwing your youth in the lion’s den of church committees vision groups and ministry teams, inspire, challenge, and equip them to seize their role as the church in a space that’s comfortable for them. I know, I know, we’re supposed to be stepping out of our comfort zones, but that comes later. A few months ago our youth got so inspired and challenged by learning about families (some they knew from school) living in motels less than 10 minutes from our church. Then they learned how these families seek assistance from the local food bank. And so they devised a plan to collect necessities like soap, toilet paper, and shampoo. Items that they learned are not purchasable with food stamps. They collected over 110 brown grocery bags of such items in one of the neighborhoods near the church. They seized the day and it all started in the basement.
Be a cheerleader, a promoter, a lobbyist. Take your pick between these roles. It’ll be different from church to church, and from situation to situation. In the first few years in youth ministry it seemed like every other week I was being told that the youth will help with this or with that. I would ask, “Has anyone asked the youth?” “We’ve always done it this way,” was the answer. It took me a few years, but I finally broke them of that habit. It became a object lesson for the adult leaders in the church. The youth have a voice too. The youth can make decisions and plan out their involvement in activities. The youth are the church, too. So if you get asked (or told) to have the youth do something, say, “I’ll ask the youth.” Take it to the basement. Let the students seize the day by being part of the discernment process.
Encourage (and at times create) Intergenerational Activities. The more time adults in the congregation spend with adolescents, the better they get to know them. In addition, the adults get to know what the adolescents can do and what they think. In short, it builds relationships between the generations. A few weeks ago a group of guys in the youth group decided they wanted to do something with the Mens group’s wood ministry. They wanted to split fire wood and deliver it to needed homes just like the men. And they did, with the men. Intentional moments like these offer opportunities for adolescents to share their gifts, their stories, and themselves with other adults in the congregation.
Open Theological Reflection. Youth can do it. Youth do do it. The more they are engaged in theological reflection in Bible studies and/or small groups, the more youth hone their critical and theological skills. This can be done in the basement, but don’t keep all that theological wealth in the basement. At least once a year, I try to teach a Bible study for high school youth and adults during the normal high school Bible study time. We have covered things like The Da Vinci Code and forgiveness. It’s a great opportunity for the youth to hear other adults in the congregation be theological thinkers, as well as giving them opportunities to be heard. What an amazing moment when adults in the congregation hear the deep, theological thoughts from the youth in their church.
So, what about you? What are some ways you’ve learned to help youth seize the day and be the church?