I could not believe what I had just heard. I was only fourteen years old and had been invited by my grandfather to go to a church where he was preaching. I loved to hear him speak and had jumped at the opportunity. Right in the middle of his sermon, however, he had stopped and said that his grandson was now going to come up and share his testimony. I looked around to see what grandson he was talking about and then like a bolt of lightning it hit me – he was talking about me. How was that possible? He had not mentioned this to me beforehand and had never asked me to do something like this in the past. I was not prepared and I was sure that he must have made a mistake. Despite this, I got out of my seat, went to the front and said a few words. I cannot remember a thing that I said, but I will never forget that moment.
This week, I met with my friend Tim and he shared a similar memory from his teenage years. He was only sixteen and was getting ready to help lead a worship service with the rest of his youth group when his pastor walked in. His pastor said in a kind of offhand way, “So Whose Going to Preach?” Without thinking too much, Tim said “I’ll Do That.” Too his great surprise, his pastor took him seriously and Tim became one of the youngest people to ever preach a sermon in that church. Like me, he did not feel prepared, did not expect this to happen, but will never forget that moment. Today, Tim is a full time pastor and he began his journey to ministry that day as a sixteen year old.
Three years after that momentous event as a fourteen year old, I was called on again to speak in public. This time I was ready. My grandfather, who was my mentor and spiritual hero, had died and I was asked to speak at his memorial service. Despite my sadness on that occasion, I could not wait to challenge other young people to a life of service and sacrifice that he had lived before me. In the ensuing years, I have been called on many times to speak to groups large and small. While I was always an extravert and full of opinions as a young person, I had never seen myself as a public speaker. Somehow he had and he took the risk to give me the opportunity to exercise a gift that he saw in me. Who knows whether this would ever have taken place if he had not “called me out” on that fateful Sunday?
Sadly my experience and Tim’s does not seem all that common these days. While young people are often allowed to use their gifts in the context of youth ministry or a carefully controlled context, rarely are they allowed demonstrate these gifts among adults. Some of the most marginalized kids in the church are the most outspoken and opinionated. They are the ones who are always laughing at the wrong time, wearing attention-getting attire and constantly getting in trouble. Pretty quickly they learn what is accepted in a church environment and they conform or leave. Very often their conformity results in silence and passivity and ultimately a total disconnect with the church itself. They do not see how they fit in and find their validation in the accolades of their non-Christian friends. Future preachers, Christian workers and leaders of Christian ministries are walking out the back doors of the church or are falling asleep in the pews.
It seems like a new paradigm is needed. Like Jesus, we need to see people as full of potential and not just as problems to be solved. He found great worth in prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. It is high time that we do the same with this next generation of church kids. They may have very different views than we do and see the world through completely different lenses, but they are no less loved by God or any less important than we are. Who knows where the next Billy Graham will come from? Maybe he is a bored and distracted teenager sitting in the back pew of the church who is just waiting to hear his name being called? Are we willing to make that call?