This fall, my high school teens and I have been discussing various “isms”. On the first week of this series, we wrestled with materialism, using the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler to do so. In this story, a rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life since he's already kept the commandments. Jesus responds by telling him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.
Now, my church is located in an upper-middle class suburb so this story is one that's hard for us to hear.
Often, we look at it and try to explain away Jesus' words. After all, we think, Jesus wouldn't really want us to be poor, would he? I mean, if everyone was poor, then where would we all be?
So we tend to interpret Jesus' words and to say that in reality, Jesus meant something more like, “Help the poor however you're able.”
The night my teens and I discussed this, every time a teen tried to reinterpret Jesus' words, I pushed back. I challenged them saying, “Why would Jesus say something he didn't mean?”
But I also acknowledged the difficulty of radically following Jesus – especially for teens still living in their parent's homes. As one student said that night, “I think my parents might have a thing or two to say if I sold all our stuff!”
So at the end of the night, I did what I'd spent the evening challenging teens not to do. I asked, “In addition to selling or giving away your possessions, practically speaking, how else can you combat materialism?”
An astute teen called me out on it.
“But you just said Jesus really meant what he said! So how can we do anything less than what he actually told this guy to do?”
Since I believe in the power of questions, I was content to leave our discussion there.
A few weeks later, that same passage showed up in worship as the Gospel reading. Having just discussed this with our high school teens, I was curious as to how our pastoral intern – who was preaching that day – would interpret it. Upon hearing his interpretation, I knew it would frustrate the teens who were most into our conversation that night. Sadly, though, those teens were unable to be in worship that day.
The next time I saw one of these teens, I mentioned our intern's sermon to her and suggested she get a copy. Incredulously, she asked if she could really do that. I assured her she could and then, truth be told, forgot all about it... Until she sought me out, frustrated by how our intern had interpreted this passage.
I encouraged her to engage our intern in a conversation about his sermon and the Gospel text, to which she quickly said, “I can't do that!”
Once again, I assured her she could and that pastors LOVE to engage people in theological conversations – even (or perhaps especially) when they disagree.
When she was still reluctant to do so, I forced the conversation.
During a recent service project, I saw to it that this student stood next to our intern in our serving line. As they scooped green beans and passed out dinner plates to homeless folks, I watched as my student engaged our intern in a conversation about his sermon and this controversial text. Over and over again, our intern dignified my student, asking questions and at times, better explaining his own thoughts. The conversation continued all the way through our service project and the dinner that followed it. By the end of it, I'm pretty sure neither person had managed to convince the other of their opinion. But they had managed to develop a relationship with one another.
The next day, I sat next to this student in worship.
Throughout much of the first part of worship, she held my daughter. As the sermon began, she leaned over and asked if I wanted my daughter back. I told her I'd gladly take her but that I was fine if she wanted to keep holding her. She handed my daughter back to me and said, “I really want to listen to the sermon.”
I looked up and realized our intern was preaching.
“Of course,” I thought. “That makes perfect sense.”
Because this teen now knew our intern, she wanted to listen to him. She cared about his opinions – especially since she knew that if she disagreed with him, she could enter into another conversation with him.
In watching this teen listen attentively to our intern's sermon, I was reminded of a core youth ministry principle: Teens listen when they have a relationship with the speaker.
Our relationships with teens give our words authority and credibility. Without relationships, our words are empty and meaningless. But in the context of a relationship, our words become catalysts for conversations, growth, and even transformation.
So next time you want to be heard, step down from the stage.
Listen to what people are saying (and what they're not saying).
Engage in what they care about.
Then – and only then – maybe they'll engage with what YOU care about.