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Doing our Young People Injustice: Christian Dream-killing

Injustice is often easy to recognize.

The ovens of Auschwitz. Human trafficking. The killing fields of Cambodia. Racism.

Pick your issue. Injustice all too often rears its ugly head in a myriad of ways, and it deprives people of their God-given human rights—indeed, their God-given gifts.

According to Gary Haugen, the renowned human rights advocate and founder of International Justice Mission, that’s what injustice is. Haugen defines injustice as someone with power using that power to take from those who are weaker the gifts that God has given them, gifts like life, liberty, equality, love, and the like.

I like that definition of injustice, mainly because I think it’s Biblical. It’s that kind of injustice, that kind of deprivation that had the prophets, God’s spokesmen and women, so riled up in scripture. Time and again the prophets looked around at society and saw the powerful taking advantage of the weak—the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the prostitute, and the sinner.

And they were filled with anger. Just anger. The just anger of a just God.

I feel that anger at times myself. As Christians we all should. Sin should make us angry, and as a particular kind of sin, so should injustice.

One injustice that I’ve recently become more aware of is what I’ve begun to think of as “dream-killing,” and it’s an injustice that those of us in the church practice all too often against our young people.

It starts with this simple fact: anyone who’s graduated from high school has an enormous amount of influence over anyone who hasn’t.

Somewhere there’s a parent reading this who thinks I’m nuts.

But research actually backs this up. No matter how often we hear and repeat the old refrain about teenagers being rebellious and contrarian and general pains in our butts, the amount of influence those of us who are older than them have in their lives remains monumental.[1] As those our young people look up to, our approval is a wonderful gift and our dismal a powerful pain. With a few carefully (or not so carefully) selected words, we can make or break a young person’s dreams.

Too often it’s the latter. Too often we do break them. Too often we kill their dreams.

We say things like, “You need to be realistic.” “You haven’t experienced enough of the world.” “It’s nice that you want to help people, but how will you provide for a family?”

I had a professor in seminary who picked up on this. In one of our classes, he told us about the reaction Christian Reformed communities used to have during his childhood when a young person excitedly announced she was going to be a missionary. He told us that the entire community was always filled with joy and that people would do their best to surround that young person with support and encouragement.

These days, he pointed out, we ask her how she’ll pay off her student loans.

And so we deprive our young people of the gifts God has given them. We use our power, our positions of influence in their lives, and the words they hang onto for approval to kill their dreams. We treat them unjustly by misusing our status to the detriment of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom we proclaim and promote one day out of the week and then shelter our children from during the other six in favor of a Western one built on the American Dream.

How is it that Christians have become dream-killers for their children? When did safety and practicality replace a fervent desire and desperate longing for the Kingdom of God?

This injustice makes me angry because I’ve started to hear, more and more, the frustration in our young people as they try to make sense of the inconsistencies they see. The fact is, young people aren’t overly idealistic; they’re perceptive. Young people hear what we preach and compare it to how we live, and they’re better than we are at seeing the differences between the two. And they don’t want that for themselves. They want to take their faith seriously.

But for whatever reason—whether it be jealousy or fear or shame or bitterness—we too often discourage them. And so we are the unjust. We are the dream killers. And if this denomination is to survive, if it is to retain its best and brightest, then we need to stop treating our young people as if they’re the “future of the church” and start empowering them to be the church now.

Because, as I’m starting to realize, they’ve got a better sense of what that means than those of us too busy putting their dreams to rest.


[Image: flickr user Youth with a Mission] 

[1] See the works of sociologist Christian Smith, among others, for a compelling treatment of just how much we continue to influence our young people in their spiritual development.


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