Jesus famously and repeatedly declared that young people have a special place in the resurrection life of God’s kingdom. For just one example he told his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16) On the other hand, St. Paul understood the path of following Jesus as a path of growing up and leaving childhood behind. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Cor 13:11).
Which is it? Like many parts of our life of faith, this is paradoxical. We all grow up. Some of us remember our youth dimly, and others are right in the middle of it. Does growing up, and putting an end to childish ways, mean that God’s kingdom no longer belongs to us?
No. God’s kingdom is a community in which every member has a unique place and some unique Spirit-led wisdom to impart. God’s kingdom is characterized by radical trust and acceptance, where we all rejoice in each others’ gifts. God trusts us all enough to hand over the keys to God’s kingdom. But, for the rest of us, it is hard to learn to trust each other enough to hand over our keys to each other. It takes discipline and work to learn that kind of trust.
Andrea Egmont, who directs Newburyport Youth Services across High Street at the Kelley School, introduced me to the work of Roger Hart, who worked for UNICEF in the 1990s. Roger Hart presented a framework to help adults learn to trust children and youth. He calls it the Ladder of Youth Participation. It is an eight-rung ladder.
RUNG 8 – Youth-initiated, shared decisions with adults: Youth-led activities, in which decision making is shared between youth and adults working as equal partners.
RUNG 7 – Youth-initiated and directed: Youth-led activities with little input from adults.
RUNG 6 – Adult-initiated, shared decisions with youth: Adult-led activities, in which decision making is shared with youth.
RUNG 5 – Consulted and informed: Adult-led activities, in which youth are consulted and informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of adult decisions.
RUNG 4 – Assigned, but informed: Adult-led activities, in which youth understand the purpose, the decision-making process, and have a role.
RUNG 3 – Tokenism: Adult-led activities, in which youth may be consulted with minimal opportunities for feedback.
RUNG 2 – Decoration: Adult-led activities, in which youth understand the purpose, but have no input in how they are planned.
RUNG 1 – Manipulation: Adult-led activities, in which youth do as directed without understanding the purpose for the activities.
The lower rungs of this ladder are pretty easy to climb to. They are not very high up, so they feel safe. The higher we climb, though, the more work it takes and the less safe we feel. Looking at RUNG 8, imagine what our congregation would be like if a majority of our vestry and at least one of our wardens were required to be 21 or younger. As a member of the over-21 set, that feels quite risky to me. But I can only imagine what it feels like to a young person. “Gulp! You mean my ideas matter and my decisions have authority? You mean the kingdom of God REALLY belongs to me?”
Well, yes. It is true. God trusts every one of us to be God’s hands, eyes, and heart to care for God’s kingdom.
To be fair, the people who work with Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation know very well that climbing the ladder is a hope and a process, and that many fine programs operate in the middle of the ladder rather than on the top rungs. In our youth programs here at St. Paul’s, we hope steadily to climb the ladder. We cannot simply leap to the top step. At the same time it is exhilarating to imagine what can be in God’s kingdom.
To learn more about the Ladder see http://freechild.org/ladder.htm