Last week, with paper-shredder confetti, chaos, and enthusiasm, we welcomed the sixth-grade youth who were confirmed on January 28! This is the first year that we have done a January transition into youth ministry, and we were delighted to have new friends a semester early! The sixth-grade youth I have already started to get to know have been an absolute joy, and I can’t wait to get to know the rest of them. The sixth-grade youth and parents were delighted by all the confetti, and why wouldn’t they be? All of the cheering and chaos loudly shouts one message: You Belong.
Teenagers locate their identity in peer groups more than any people of any other developmental stage. The psychological need to be able to shape identity among peers is so intense that an experience like not having somewhere to sit in the lunch room, not being invited to something, or, more unique to modern adolescents, realizing that a horrible thing about you has been posted online and that everyone saw it, triggers a reaction in the hypothalamic complex identical to a life-threatening event.
So when she cries and yells that she’ll die if you don’t let her go to the party and that you just don’t understand — at some point, she’s right. Her brain is telling her that her potential isolation is literally life-threatening, in a way that it just isn’t in an adult brain. Nerd Break over.
So we throw confetti at sixth-graders. We greet every single youth by name. We send them cards on their birthday. We do silly forced-participation activities where we all look like idiots. Because when the whole team is cheering your name while you try to blow up a balloon with your nose — it doesn’t matter how many friends you have at school, or whether you had a date to the dance, or whether you made varsity — for just that moment at least, You Belong.
And you have no idea how much that moment can mean. When participants in this youth ministry were asked to elaborate on this youth ministries values, the first one named was inclusive, and at Revolution Weekend, as we gave youth a chance to take the mic for a few minutes, what they iterated over and over was this idea that this place, this youth ministry, this community, was somewhere where they felt like they could be themselves, like they were welcomed and wanted. That this was their family. That this was a place where they belonged.
Amen, am I right?
I am so confident that those sixth-grade youth don’t have any idea what we taught the rest of that morning that they were at Sunday School. But they’ll remember the confetti. And I’m good with that, because probably what we teach about Jesus isn’t nearly as important as actually showing the love of Jesus. And I’d like to think that Jesus would be fine with cutting a few minutes off a lesson, would pick up a handful of confetti, and throw it alongside us, that Jesus would be more than OK if the only thing we managed to “teach” to those sixth-grade youth last weekend was that they, just as they were, without exception, merit, or qualification, belonged.