The kids are alright
It was my privilege to spend the past week with some excellent teens at Rock River Bible Camp in northern Illinois. As a pastor, I have taught youth there each summer for many years.
After a year off during the pandemic of 2020, 29 high-schoolers, served by 17 staff persons (mostly twenty-somethings), came to senior high camp.
Honored to be asked, I took on the role of camp teacher. While I have been called upon over the years to speak often to youth, I am aware of the age gap between them and myself. I decided to do a mini-survey by asking my own grandchildren (ages 14, 15 and 16) what they could tell me about their generation.
One did not answer as the text didn't go through, another didn't know how to answer, but the third simply said I should ask the kids I was speaking to but to be careful because "my generation is wayy sic too sensitive." I also asked my daughter, who is raising two teens herself.
Her observations were interesting: Lots of gender confusion, (a given); mental health issues, leading some to suicide counseling; self-absorption (though perhaps this is always true of the young); in no hurry to get a driver's license; connection with friends virtually; and a new development of bullying of straight kids.
So last week I began. Eleven boys and 18 girls were the campers. Most of these were public school-educated, only one attended a Christian school while the rest were home-schooled. When I asked the kids about their generation and shared my "survey," sure enough some were offended.
A few took offense at the "gender confusion" comment, as it challenged the new normal of complete acceptance and celebration of the non-heterosexual lifestyles.
This we heard from some of the cabin discussions, though they never surfaced in chapel classes.
As the week progressed, I taught "how to become a Christian" and "how to become Christian" from Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.
Camp is an incarnational experience. In non-class times we all simply did life together. We ate with the campers and played with them. Loving each other and the campers, the offense seemed to subside.
As I process this experience, I come away with the following reflections:
The entire camp was one big "clique." No rival factions nor jealousies appeared, excluding the weak or others. One day, as we concluded staff meeting, we looked out the window to see all the campers, clustered together, without any staff present.
This is a generation eager to learn. Attendance at the "chapel" sessions of praise singing and teaching was never once in question. They meet twice a day. As I taught, and as cabin discussions followed, honest dialogue ensued.
For the last session of the week, my friend Tom joined me as we fielded a wide range of questions. This went on for an hour and 40 minutes before we cut it off.
"Be still and know that I am God"
As I concluded one session on becoming a Christian, the worship leader invited any who wished to remain in the chapel to quietly pray. Everyone stayed, on their feet, in absolute quiet (even the bat who had invaded chapel) for over ten minutes. Another time, after I concluded my talk, the dean invited them to remain and pray to "turn from their idols to serve the living God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Many stayed.
The concluding service of communion was held outside. Again, the silence was deafening as each one of us prepared our hearts first and then, one-by-one received the elements.
A key feature, added at the last minute was many of us telling our own stories. Two of these came from individuals from outside the camp, the rest from staff. These tales of God's victory over pain and obstacles helped many to personalize the teaching.
These kids are God-seekers. They try to live out the mandate to "love one another."
I once referred in this column to Waldorf and Statler, the old geezers on the Muppet show who never had a good word to say about what was happening on the stage. Too often I hear my own baby boom generation demeaning the young.
These are our grandchildren! They face a world even more toxic than the unsettling days of the 60 and the 70s.
I find that if we take the time to be with them, to listen and care about their worlds, these children, born after 2000, will respond.
Nathaniel Hawthorn once wrote of "the Gray Champion," the spirit of an aged man who appeared at times of trouble to stiffen the resolve to the young. Come on fellow baby boomers. Let us challenge and cheer them on!
Pastor Gary Brown former pastor at New Zion Evangelical Church in Emlenton serves as associate pastor in Winnebago, Illinois.