The image of young people in the world today is not, generally speaking, a good one. People are afraid of assault and burglary, they fear a breakdown of society and the rise of an anarchic, drug-riddled subculture. All this they lay at the feet of young people, and attribute it to their disrespect for elders, their disregard for all forms of authority and their lack of interest in anything associated with their parents' generation.
Much of this image, it is true, depends more on media beat-ups and community perception rather than truth. Solomon rightly said "there is nothing new under the sun", and an examination of the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, as well as a perusal of literature of all sorts from all ages and cultures, should readily tell us that teenage rebellion and angst are far from unique phenomena of our own times. The passage from childhood to adulthood has always been a traumatic one: a time that needs understanding, sympathy and kindness. It also needs a firm moral compass and fair, dependable support and guidance. Above all else, it needs Christ.
Solomon exhorted the young to "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth" (Ecc. 12: 1). There can be a tendency to put off our obedience to Christ, as for example Felix tried (Acts 24: 25), but Solomon points out the time when we need to proclaim and carry out our allegiance to God - in our youth, not years later when our ability to serve Christ and the amount we can achieve for him have been diminished by the wasted years (Ecc. 12). There can be no doubt, then, that young people need Christ. They need His example, they need His guidance, and they need His salvation.
As children mature toward adulthood, they experience many changes. They begin to desire independence and autonomy, they feel greater attraction to and interest in the opposite sex, and they begin to make the physical changes into adulthood. At the same time they are bombarded with temptations to sin as never before from their friends and from the commercial realm, their belief in God and the Bible is often questioned and even ridiculed by their associates and in their schooling, and they are required to make important decisions which are going to affect the conduct of their entire lives. With this in mind, it should hardly surprise us that these years can be difficult and confusing ones!
The need for decisions and the presence of temptation and ungodly influences in the life of a young person reinforce the need for the guidance of God's Word during this time of life. Only by a strong adherence to the principles contained in the Bible will a young person be able to survive successfully and mature to a godly, confident and spiritually strong adult. Without such an influence, young people will be spiritually adrift, unable either to make the right decisions in their lives or to keep themselves out of trouble. Often, when young people fail to follow God, their chances of ever returning to Him are drastically diminished. In many cases, the pattern of their future lives is already set, and they drift into a pointless and spiritually unfulfilled life.
How then can the church encourage its young people to stay close to God and make a life-long commitment to Him by rendering obedience to the Gospel and staying faithful? First, we must ensure that they receive a steady diet of "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20: 27). We should eschew the tendency seen so often in the world of "soft-pedalling" on sin, and instead point out the many ways in which the lifestyle being promoted to teenagers is in contradiction to God's Word. Solomon warned of the danger of youth following its own desires with little regard to the consequences:
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thine heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgement (Ecc. 11: 9).
Youth must be explicitly admonished of the consequences of sin. While the presentation of God's Word needs to be done so as to hold their interest, this is no excuse for ignoring the realities of sin and judgement. Indeed, as young people approach and pass accountability, they need more than ever to know that God will hold them accountable for their thoughts, words and deeds.
This does not mean, however, that we can expect to plonk teenagers down in the worship assembly and perhaps the adult Bible class and expect them simply to absorb the required information. The truth of God's Word needs to be presented to them, at least some of the time, in a way that is accessible and relevant to them, and in such a manner as they are able to question and discuss the material. This is where a teenage or young person's class can be invaluable. The material presented in such classes should ideally be both Biblically based and pertinent to the needs and struggles which are experienced by teenagers.
For example, we have already mentioned the new range of temptations teenagers are confronted with. They need to be equipped with the knowledge of how, and why, to deal with such temptations - they need to know up-to-date and useful information about drugs, drinking, smoking and the like. They need to know about a Christian's attitude to sex and dating - here single-sex classes will be more appropriate, but we should ensure that both sexes receive this information. They need to be equipped with solid proof of the reliability of God's Word, and given the ability to use it. We must also accept that they will have questions and problems with all of these things, and the classes must be presented in such a way as to allow or even to encourage this involvement.
In addition, young people should be encouraged to seek out the right kind of company. The Bible tells us "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners" (I Cor. 15: 33). Here youth groups and similar arrangements can be of great help. There are those who oppose such groups on the grounds that churches ought not to support activities which are primarily social. However, there are several things which need to be taken into consideration. First, when there is any kind of financial expense involved, such groups are usually funded by parents, not the church treasury, so the funding issue is something of a straw man. Second, Bible teaching and discussion, not to mention community outreach, can and should be incorporated into the format of such groups. Thirdly, we can be assured that if the young people of the church do not learn to enjoy the company and friendship of fellow Christian youth, they will look elsewhere for such companionship. It is absolutely vital that churches encourage and cherish an active and vibrant youth group, whether it be a formally organised group or simply occasional gatherings and outings. The time and effort expended on these should be regarded as valuable and well-spent.
It is not only fellow Christian young people that can encourage youth to live godly lives. The church community at large must play an active role also. It has been observed that in more "primitive" societies the whole tribe or village participated in the upbringing of children and young people. Moreover, it has been observed that this process tends to produce young people who mature into active, functional and independent adults. Christians today have a great advantage because we are a part of a community that does, or at least can, fill the same role as the ancient tribe or village. Each adult needs to look on him or herself as responsible, at least in part, not only for their own progeny but for all the young people and children of the church. This is not to undermine the God-given role and responsibility of parents, but simply to assist wherever possible in the rearing of the young.
By this means, young people can seek out mentors and models for their lives in addition to their own parents. They can be provided with people they can trust and depend upon in times of trouble, or when communication with their parents is difficult for some reason. Single parents can provide their children with admirable and godly role models from the opposite sex, in a way which is virtually impossible in the wider community. When young people are hurting, or confused, or upset, they can know that there is a supportive, godly and loving community that they can rely upon. Eventually, they will take their rightful place in that community and be able to offer that same support to others.
There is no doubt that it can be a difficult thing to be a young person today. But the life of a young person who has devoted him or herself to God is a beautiful thing. We should value the input they have into the church community, celebrate their achievements, cherish their open and trusting hearts, and help to guide them in their walk in Christ. Each young person can take heed to Paul's exhortation to Timothy:
Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity (I Tim. 4: 12).
By applying this to their lives, and by continuing steadfastly in it, young people can be valuable and important in their lives, both now and in the future. The people of God must encourage the young amongst them to strive to do this, and they must hold out their hands to support them as they do so.
It has often been said that the young are the future of the church, and this
is indeed true, for without their youth and energy the church would rapidly
stagnate and grow old. We should also bear in mind, however, that in a very real
sense the young are the church of today. They form a vital and essential part of
the Lord's body, and we must ensure that in this coming century they have every
opportunity to remember God and fashion their lives after His Son.