The Fourth of July arrives this week with quintessential images of running barefoot through the grass, waving sparklers through backyard barbecues. Indeed summer seems to be a season of youthfulness, reflected in the freshness of nature’s full bloom and the freedom of school vacation.
A fitting time to reflect on the vocation of youth and how we are called by God from the earliest days of childhood and adolescence.
As part of the 2002 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, Joyce Mercer (Seminar member) begins her lecture—entitled “Called Forwarding: Putting Vocation in the Present Tense with Youth”—with a charming malapropism on the subject of vocation:
As our family prepared to take a short trip during the holidays, one of my twin five-year-old sons who had been listening to months of dinner table conversations on the subject of youth ministry and vocation, asked as we packed our bags, “Mama, are we going on a vocation now?” […]
The question, “Are we going on a vocation now?” can be asked equally by youth and by those who minister with youth. Perhaps with youth, the question sounds more like this: “Are we going on a vocation now?” with emphasis on the time when vocation exists.
In the case of youth ministers (particularly in the way youth ministry is structured in many Presbyterian and other mainline churches), the question takes a different stress: “Are we going on a vocation now?” with emphasis on the nature of this work as a bone fide Christian vocation.
Youth is often described as an in-between time of “already and not-yet,” as noted by our Seminar on Vocation Across the Lifespan in its June 2012 meeting on youth and vocation. Accordingly, adolescence can be dismissed as mere preparation for future callings to the work and relationships of adulthood.
Yet a theology of vocation that claims we are called by our Creator our whole life long must push beyond simple stereotypes to probe the question of how we are in relationship with God in every stage from childhood through old age. Youth are not simply called to become something or someone in the future; they are called as they are here and now. They are not only, therefore, the future of the church; they are part of the present.
Part of the vocation of youth involves the unique gifts adolescents have to offer. Youth have a capacity for receptivity, a desire to communicate in new ways, and a drive to push beyond the world they have known as children. This stage of life offers powerful, prophetic potential to reform or renew institutions, as seen in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. In this way the church can be reinvigorated by the charisms of youth that faith communities need: abundant energy, risk-taking courage, fearless optimism.
Yet today’s youth are coming of age in an increasingly consumerist culture, beginning when advertisers started specifically targeting teens in the late 1980s. Churches have a crucial role to play in helping young people develop a critical consciousness towards this dominant culture—which defines an individual’s self-worth by what he or she consumes and holds up instant gratification as the greatest good.
Part of encouraging youth’s vocation include developing their imagination and agency, as well as offering supportive communities and positive role models, to help young people encounter God within and beyond today’s cultural scripts. These vocational explorations of youth can allow them to live into the invitation offered to them as people called by God to love their neighbor here and now.
In her lecture, Mercer concludes:
“Are we going on a vocation now?” Yes. God has already forwarded the call into the present tense for youth. Youth is unequivocally a time in which persons are called by God, and out of that calling they issue a special and prophetic call to the church and world.
Teens are called, then, beyond their cell phones or their summer jobs or their first loves. Yet they are also called within these important explorations of identity, relationships, community, and work. Youth are invited into a lifelong relationship with the God who created them for vocation.
(Even on summer vacation.)
Image: epSos.de. Young Teenagers Playing Guitar Band of Youth. Available from Flickr Commons under Creative Commons License.