Today is apparently TOMS Shoes “one day without shoes” which someone had to tell me about. The idea being that we not wear shoes through the day to bring awareness & some empathy to the plight of those around the world who go without adequate or any footwear. This article is not because of my distaste for TOMS, they are fine by me. I actually support Soles for Souls which operates around the corner from my house. They, along with the likes of Charity Water, Invisible Children, To Write Love on Her Arms and more, would be grouped under what we will call “Justice Brands” via the McCann WorldGroup research on millennials (page 16).
We all know that various research tells us that millennials are very much inclined to justice initiatives. They see the world as increasingly unequal and want to bring about change.
But How Are We Teaching the Change Makers?
Some years ago I had one of my youth kids who I knew through years of work in our conference share with the youth his experience over two years doing work as a US2 missionary through the United Methodist Church. Adam, my friend, gave me a great lesson that day which I have used along my ministry and how I try to teach my young adults.
There is our Charity and then there is our Justice
Charity are those things that we do so often in youth ministry. Short term missions trips, 30 Hour Famines, fundraising drives, food collections, a day once a year at the homeless shelter or soup kitchen, are all very good things for youth to try and gain a broad spectrum of experiences. But let us not be calling them “justice” within our ministry.
Charity requires very little sacrifice on our part. Charity might be something we give some money towards and feel better about having ‘done something.’ What we are doing is enabling someone else to do the sacrificial work, which, is not a bad thing.
Justice on the other hand are things that you rarely see in youth ministry today.
- How many homeless people do your youth know by name and on a weekly basis find them to see if they are still alive?
- How many youth ministries spend their weekly youth group gathering with each youth writing letters and physically protesting government legislation in order to pass governance that will help to provide better living for the “least of these”?
- How many youth ministries today have youth gatherings at retirement communities to meet, play, pray, build relationships with those who are widowed and alone?
- How many youth ministries work with immigrant communities? Every city has them. Many rural farming areas as well.
- How many youth kids have graduated your program to take on an injustice in our world and are doing something about it? (confession for me, I can count on both hands the youth kids in my 20 years of work & I barely need the second hand)
We do not teach the act of Justice in youth ministry today. We teach Charity, which is helpful and good in its own way, but not that sacrificial and intensive investment of a young persons life that will actually break free of systemic injustices.
Our Way of Charity
Take for example, the other month in our way of teaching and and the viral nature of justice brands, we had the story of “Kony 2012” and the simple ask of spreading the word. Is there any follow up to Kony this month? Are you planning some trip to Uganda? Are your youth planning some protest or writing campaign to our government? Are they doing research on the companies that do business with gun manufacturers that enable Kony and his army? Probably not.. If you are like my youth group then Kony was so February. But Kony has been around for over a decade and will continue to unless some break in the system of injustice there happens. Will a social media campaign and a number of million views make that happen? Might. Probably not, because officials who have been enabled to make the changes know that these charity events blow in the breezes. But if it had a few million committed people who stood by this until the particular changes needed were made then that is Justice.
Maybe this is our beginning point in all of youth ministry. To get youth involved in charity work. One of my youth kids has given up at least the last two years of his birthdays to raise money through Charity Water. He has even gotten the youth group to start raising money for a well. I am pretty pumped about that as one of his youth leaders. However, we were very intentional with him and others that doing something and finding a point of passion was important to bringing justice to the world. This is just how he is realizing it right now. When he graduates (he is a just a freshman this year) we shall see where he takes this.
What Can Be Our Way of Justice
Because I don’t want you to have to read more, you can scan my list of ideas on building a ministry that instills within them what Justice is.
- Use this language of Charity and Justice according to what you are doing. Some acts are Charity and some are Justice, both are good but very different.
- Ask the youth questions such as “Where did you see an injustice this day/week?” and then follow up with “What did you do about it?” gives them pause to think about the life they have experienced that day/week and how they did or did not take an action. Might have been a charitable action, maybe it was some justice work. I know a high level CEO who when she interviews job candidates asks this very set of questions. Her feeling is that she wants people in her work force that see humanity and take action.
- Push youth who have an interest in Charities to find out what are the root causes to why that is a need. Systemic poverty, gun laws, depression/mental health, education, women’s rights, civil infrastructure, etc every problem that has persisted has a system in place enables it and a system that needs breaking to bring change.
- You can find charities that do long term work and have a high rating for their use of your money and impact on the system they are working to break through. There are a bunch of rating systems so take your pick in comparing. United Methodist Committee on Relief has what is considered the highest ratings of A to A+.
- Have one or two justice missions as a youth ministry. These are regular and relational ministry activities the youth group engages in. Providing tutoring for a church in the low income area to help the ‘at risk’ children with their education & support systems. Knowing names is a great indicator that you’ve found the relational point of a justice mission. You shouldn’t have more than one or two justice projects.
- Educate and provide opportunities for your youth to know about ongoing justice work they can be involved after graduation. The US 2 Missionary opportunity is one that does good work. It might be a follow up commitment to one of your short term mission programs, volunteering for work as year round staffing.
- Get the youth to reinvent the toilet as a youth group game.
You are still reading?
I hope you find the subtle balance in your youth ministry just as I have tried to in this article. I will be wearing my flip flops today, just as I do most every day. You can go barefoot if you like but know that you need to & instill passion into your teenagers a whole lot more if you want to call it justice work.