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Commentary: Seeing youth as seeds of new possibilities

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The Rev. Tonya Burton
May 4, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Tonya Burton*

In their very first year of the Perkins Youth School of Theology, I asked the students what messages they had received as youth about what they wanted to do and be when they became adults.

One male student with spiked hair, wearing an earring and a really cool-looking T-shirt, said that when he was younger he always wanted to be a WWF wrestler because it looked fun, exciting and dangerous. He continued to hold this belief until he got into high school and started having some meaningful experiences in his church youth group.

During the course of those experiences, along with watching political talk shows, e-mailing senators about his position on different issues and reading articles about various social matters, he decided that he wanted to be a minister.

When asked why he would like to go into ministry as a vocation instead of wrestling, he noted that of the two professions, ministry was a much more dangerous job!

I recall this story because initially I was struck by this thought of ministry as a “dangerous” profession and how could a 16-year-old possibly come to this conclusion? As our relationship developed, I appreciated his comments even more. We talked about the theological concerns of youth and whether they felt the church doesn’t take their voices seriously.

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Young people sing during the opening worship at Youth 2003 on the campus of the University of Tennessee.
What do these types of conversations with youth mean for institutions like churches and seminaries that are charged with the task of theological education? My work with high school youth in the Perkins Youth School of Theology at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in Dallas has not only challenged my own beliefs and perceptions about youth, but it has challenged my profession as a clergyperson and a theological educator.

It is imperative for us to start seeing our youth as seeds from which new possibilities can grow and flourish. Young people have much to offer to those of us who also struggle with our muted voices of theological and doctrinal discontent.

The arena of ministry and vocational discernment is not just one for adults but also for everyone willing to respond to the call of the deep passions and hungers within them.

One African proverb says, “Youth is a like stream. If it is not directed to its course, it meanders and swallows its tail.” In what ways have you been challenged by the streams of living water present in our youth? Is the church willing to walk alongside these streams, even as they meander along rocks, hills, valleys and mountains of their own faith journeys and enjoy the refreshment they bring to the Body of Christ and the world?

Maybe it is through their eyes of faith that we can focus more clearly on the oceans of possibilities God has in store for us all.

*Burton is director of the Perkins Youth School of Theology. This commentary first appeared in the March 2006 edition of the Perkins E-Newsletter, published by Perkins School of Theology.

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Youth School of Theology

Perkins School of Theology

Division on Ministries withYoung People