When I was in high school, my biggest social concerns were where I was going to go skateboarding, who I was going to go out with on Friday night, and how I was going to get gas money. As a faithful member of the “me” generation, everything on my radar had to do with, well…me. But things have changed for teens of this generation. Their radar is much broader.
Instead of the “Me” generation I would call this the “We” generation. This is a generation that is looking more outside of themselves. They see social injustices, global needs, and community causes as something. And they have quickly and decisively mobilized themselves to make a difference on a worldwide scale.
Teens are at the forefront of ?nding solutions to social injustices because they have the time, energy, and creativity. They are willing to take big risks for the possibility of seeing the world become just a step closer to the way God meant for it to be. For teens today social injustices aren’t merely hot issues to be debated on a political stage in order to score points.
Teens have moved beyond rhetoric and committed countless hours to serving both locally and abroad. Last year more than 15.5 million teens served as volunteers in their community—55% of all teens. They contributed more than 1.3 billion hours of service. As a matter of fact, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service college volunteerism is growing at more than twice the rate than that of adults. Only 5% of teen volunteers do so because of a school requirement. That translates into 95% of
teen volunteers doing so because they are passionate about making a difference.
Teenagers Take “Red Letter” Seriously
Many new organizations have been started by/for teens and college students in recent years to address social justice as part of a response of faith. One such organization is Invisible Children started by three college students Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole. In 2003 the three went to Uganda with nothing more than a notepad and video camera but came home with a story to tell. They produced a movie called Invisible Children: The Film to promote awareness of the effects of the ongoing war in Northern Uganda on the thousands of young boys that have been orphaned and forced into becoming soldiers.
In 2006 they started a program for teens called Schools for Schools in which local schools in America help raise funds to rebuild schools in war-torn Uganda. In the past year more than 1160 schools have participated and raised near $1.5 million dollars.
On the surface, the activism of today’s teens and college students may bring back memories of anti-war, peace marches of the 60s. But the comparison ends there. Instead of characterizing themselves by what they are against, they talk in great detail about what they are for. They are pro-life. They are pro-economic equality. They are pro-freedom. They are pro-compassion.
The biggest difference is that for many teens today their activism has been birthed by a call from God. As they have responded to his heart, God has quietly been raising up a generation of teens that places a high value on equality, service, compassion, and justice. They are feeding the hungry, calling for an end to war, providing for the homeless—along with many others actions—because they see these are part of the
values that Christ espoused. They take the words of Jesus seriously that whenever they do something for “the least of these” it is as if they are doing it to Christ himself. They see passages like Luke 4:18&19 as Jesus putting feet to the gospel. For these “red letter” teens the salvation Jesus provides isn’t something to wait for in eternity. Instead the gospel is about bringing about God’s kingdom and will on earth just as it is in Heaven.
Fast Facts on Teen Volunteerism
- 64% of teen volunteers do so with religious groups.
- 60% of all teen volunteers start before age 14.
- 15.5 million teens are active volunteers.
- Teens contributed to more than 1.3 billion hours of community service.
- Teens who volunteer are twice as likely to do so as adults.
- Teen volunteers make better grades.
- Students with a part-time job are twice as likely to also be volunteers.
Around the World in 180 Days
Chris Clark, former youth pastor at Longview Heights Baptist in Olive Branch, MS has seen a surge of interest among his students to do more than fun and games. His youth volunteers and staff have responded by setting students free to live out their faith while meeting the needs of others all around the world. Instead of trips to water parks and Six Flags, his middle school students spend their summer doing ongoing Katrina relief work in New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile. Longview’s high school students have trekked to Peru, Africa, Romania, and Toronto, Canada.
Countless relief organizations have developed programs to address AIDS in Africa but Longview students had a different idea. They headed to Zimbabwe—where more than 30% of the population is HIV positive—to follow in the footsteps of Christ’s original Twelve in Luke 9:2. They “preached the kingdom of God and brought healing to the sick.” The healing message they brought to these people torn apart by an incurable disease was one of sexual abstinence. For hours each day the students of Longview went into the schools and led hundreds of teenagers through a True Love Waits program. Their compassion is helping to bring about a change to many Zimbabwean teenagers that will effect their everyday quality of life as well as eternity.
As these teens have learned that the gospel is more than words, it is their own hearts that are being changed as well. “I’ve seen more authentic life change from this trip than any ordinary summer camp or retreat we’ve done,” said Clark. “In the end, my students are the ones being changed.”
Setting Them Free to Pursue God’s Justice
As parents we are constantly bombarded with reports from media that tell us this generation of teens are lazy, pessimistic, violent, and disrespectful. To be clear there are problems with generation just as with every generation in the past. But there is also much good at work in them. As a matter of comparison consider that last year less than 300,000 teens were in gangs and less than 18,000 schools reported incidences of gun violence, yet there were more than 15 million teens involved in community works. That is something as adults we should celebrate.
The easily placed labels by the media seem to have fallen on the deaf ears of these teens. Instead they have responded with their hearts, taken a critical look at their world, and decided they have something to say about bringing God’s love and mercy to the broken, forgotten, and maligned in His world.
We are witnessing a generation that is saying “yes” to God and bolding moving forward to end social injustices. As parents we can encourage our teens to do what we could not. We can partner with them by making the spiritual discipline of service a part of our family experiences. Take some time this summer to serve together. Don’t just send your teen on a mission trip but rather go on one together. Let the causes of your teen’s heart be something you share together by going out and experiencing the risk, adventure, and
ful?llment of bringing about God’s justice on earth.
I think we would all agree that the most important news today isn’t the downfall of Britney Spears’ music career. But maybe it shouldn’t even be the war, the presidential election, or the economy. Perhaps it should be that as parents we are living among a generation of teens whose heart is resonating with God’s heart.
For more information on local teen volunteerism check out VolunteerMatch. VolunteerMatch is a non-profitt that connects you and your interests with service groups in your area. Simply type in your zip code, age, and interests and Volunteer Match gives you a list of available opportunities in your city. A search of my city of Memphis found more than forty opportunities for teens. Their partnership with more than 56,000 organizations is sure to just the right for your teen.