First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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The Times They Have A-Changed
September 17, 2000
Jeremiah 1:4-10           The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder

Introduction to the Scripture:

Liz will be reading today about a young boy who lived long, long ago and far, far away. The prophet Jeremiah lived about 2,600 years ago, and he, like young people today struggled with some basic questions: Who am I? Am I good at anything? What will I do with my life? Is there purpose for me? What is God like? Jeremiah came to a strong conviction that God had cared for him even before he was born, and that God had a reason for creating him, a purpose, or a "calling" unique to him, one that no one else could carry out just the way he could. Jeremiah came to have something we would wish for all our young people: a knowledge of God's presence and guidance, and a challenging and meaningful calling. Let us listen now for God's Word to us, within these words from Jeremiah.
          Jeremiah 1:4-10

          Young Jeremiah's cry, "I am only a boy," was not the first nor was it to be the last protest God had heard. Moses didn't exactly relish the idea of delivering the word of the Lord to Pharaoh. Remember that scene at the burning bush? "Oh, Lord! You don't want ME to speak, do you? I am slow of tongue, and of speech!" Even the apostle Paul had to be knocked off his horse with a blinding light before he could finally say, with Isaiah of old, "Here I am; send me."

          Jeremiah - like some young people - felt he had nothing to offer - or at least not enough to take on the momentous role of a prophet to the nations being laid before him. Youth can sometimes be like that - unsure of its gifts, untested, tentative even if willing. Other times youth can be quite the opposite: "Prophet to the nations? SURE! I can do that! Just point me in the right direction, and let me at 'em!" Young David standing brazenly before the giant Goliath comes to mind. Perhaps you have known some energetic young Davids in your life - wide-eyed, confident and eager.

          As the front of your bulletin reminds us, the Vision our church is pursuing this year is Generation to Generation: Sharing God's Blessings, as we seek to learn what it means to minister not just to our young people, but with them as colleagues in ministry to this community. We want to become a church that more than it already does cherishes and honors and respects our children and young people as the gifts they are to the world. But just who ARE these young people in our midst? What are they like? What do they think? What are their concerns?

          Just this last month the results of a comprehensive study of the youth of out city were released. A survey was completed last April by over 4,000 youth in Oshkosh, grades six through twelve, under the direction of a nationally respected firm, Search Institute, out of Minneapolis. Its findings are very helpful, and raises lots of good questions not just for the schools of Oshkosh, but for any institution - like this church - who wants to provide a meaningful experience for the youth of this city. This morning I want to point out some of the findings that are I think of particular importance to us here - without, I trust, burying you in statistics! Generalizations are always dangerous, of course. Individuals do not "fit" into anyone's grids. Still, I think some of these numbers are enlightening, and challenging, and worth looking at for a few minutes this morning, as we the so-called "grown ups" of First Congregational Church learn about the young people of our church and community.

          The Northwestern reported on the survey - perhaps you saw it a week ago. In fact, an editorial highlighted some of the findings, which they called "by-and-large positive." First listed was this: "a majority of our kids think they are getting the love and support they deserve" in their family. That is good news in our time of so many families in crisis. 3 in 5 students reported that, and while we can be grateful for those three we do have to wonder about the other two - the 40% of kids who don't feel much if any family support. But still, 3 in 5 felt good about their family.

          The paper also liked the finding that kids are "optimistic about their future" - 69% of them said that, reflecting the irrepressible hopefulness that has characterized youth of all times. One of the gifts our young people can give us is the optimism that some of us, perhaps, have lost over the years. Then too, 2 out of 3 students felt that they had good, positive peer influence - again, the factor that is so important in that time of life especially, the value of close, encouraging friendships - "fellowship" we call it here, close relationships among ourselves. That's important to kids, and to all of us.

          Here's another item: nearly half the kids were involved in community service one hour a week or more. One wonders how many of us could say the same! Again: almost half thought it is important to promote racial equality, and to reduce hunger and poverty. A lot of our young people are caring people - especially, I would dare to wager, among kids who are part of a community of faith where loving one another and doing justice for the poor are held up as ideals, and indeed lived out in many ways. Other values that the survey revealed are integrity and honesty (2 out of 3 kids marked those) and even "responsibility:" over half felt that it's important to be responsible for one's actions, and doing their best. All of that speaks well of our youth.

          There were some numbers weren't so comforting: Only half of the kids said they care about the school they go to, which means, of course that the other half doesn't.

          The paper thought that it was a positive thing that half the kids think they shouldn't be sexually active or use alcohol or other drugs. But is that really good news? Only half have those values? Another 17% didn't know what they think about those subjects.

          The paper reported approvingly that 60% of the youth of Oshkosh spend one or more hours a week in activities at a church, synagogue or mosque - a higher number than I would have guessed, and one that at first sounds pretty good. After all, fewer kids - 56% - are involved in youth programs such as sports and extracurricular school activities, community clubs. But there was a hook. The church question asked if they spent at least one hour in religious programs. The sports and school activities asked at least three hours. So the same number of kids are involved in church activities as sports and other things. But for every one hour they are in religious programs, they are in three hours of other things.

          So kids - many, at least - feel the support of their families, and most of them genuinely care about others, give of their time in service, and espouse the virtues of integrity and responsibility and honesty. They are optimistic about their futures; they are good kids, with much to give, including their enthusiasm and talents. That's encouraging, and I hope that it's not really news to us - especially given the quality of youth here at this church.

          But the survey reveals some big concerns.

          1. The first one - and here we as a community scored lower than the national average - is how we as adults look at our young people; what we think of them, or at least this is how the kids think we feel about them. Only 18% - 1 in 5 - said that the adults in their lives "make me feel important . . . listen to what I have to say." Only 1 in 5 said that they "feel like I matter to people." That is a disturbing finding, isn't it? Most of our kids feel that we adults don't think that they matter. Either we DON'T think they have anything to offer, anything worth listening to, and they are sensing that correctly. OR we DO think they matter, but don't communicate that. Either way, we have a problem.

          2. Related to that is this next finding. Only 1 in 4 of the youth of Oshkosh feel like they are "useful and important" in their families. Only 1 in 4 are "given lots of chances to help my city be a better place in which to live," or "help decide what goes on in my school." In other words, most of our kids don't see where there are any places to participate meaningfully, in ways that make a difference, in their families or community.

          3. Thirdly, as I mentioned above, true enough, the majority feel the support of their family, but that's only 62%. 1 in 3 don't feel supported by those who are supposed to be their primary supporters in life. Further, only 1 in 4 say they have good family communication - that they can talk to parents about things that are important to them.

          4. Lastly, reflecting how kids relate to adults outside of the family unit, less than half - 2 in 5 kids - said that they have good relationships with other adults. Most kids DON'T have adult friends - people to give them encouragement, people they look forward to being with them, to talk with even just once a month. The fragmentation of society has meant that kids, by and large, spend all their time with kids, and adults with adults, so that our youth don't have a chance to meet and establish friendships with adults. No wonder they don't feel valued or useful. No wonder we are suspicious of them, and they distrustful of us: we don't know each other.

          The survey includes an overall challenge. Of the 40 identified "assets" - that is, resources that will allow a person to grow from adolescence into an adulthood that is healthy and productive and joyful - external assets like support of family, school and community, safety; having appropriate rules, good adult role models, positive peer relationships; good use of time in creative, athletic, and religious activities; and internal resources like a commitment to learning, values of caring, equality, integrity, responsibility, and restraint; social skills like planning, interpersonal relationships, resistance skills, conflict resolution, and positive self-identity - of the forty things kids need in order to thrive - only 7% of our youth in Oshkosh feel they have 31-40 assets. On the other extreme, 1 in 5 feel they have fewer than 10 of those 40 ingredients necessary for a happy life. 1 in 3 say they have between 21 and 30 assets. But fully 64% (2 in every 3 kids) have half or less of the resources needed.

          Our young people today face great challenges. They are asking the same questions we all did as we grew up - Who am I? Do you like me? Is there a reason why I'm here at all? Does anybody know who I am - does anybody really understand me? Is there a God? How do you know? Does that God care who I am? [Bryan Sirchia, The Ten Key Marks of Thriving Youth Ministries] But they are asking those questions in a climate of much more uncertainty - in families, in ideas of right and wrong, in a society obsessed with things rather than people, where affluence has weakened rather than strengthened the fabric of society. They are having to discover answers in the midst of the din of media that fills every nook and cranny of life, shouting or whispering conflicting answers to life's questions, drowning in an ocean of information. A recent study says that the average teen spends 37.5 hours a week plugged in - watching TV or video games or on the internet. [Tom Sine, Sojourners, Sep-Oct 2000] And our youth are growing up in a violent world. The Oshkosh survey showed that 1 in 3 has experienced violence in the home.

          What can we do about these challenges, as we pursue our Vision, Generation to Generation? We can see to it that our children's and youth programs are staffed by willing, and excited and competent teachers. In the Church School and youth events kids can establish those friendships with adults that are so much lacking in their lives.

          And we can do more intergenerational things, where kids and adults can know one another, and respect one another - where youth can see adults of faith working toward the same ideals of integrity and justice that the kids hold so highly. We can as families learn how to make more time to be with one another, helping each other to resist the forces that (often with the best of intentions) end of pulingl families apart. In last month's Tidings I pointed out a group in the midwest - "Family Life 1st" - whose purpose is to build communities "where family life is an honored and celebrated priority." We need to do that here in Oshkosh.

          This church has a good track record of affirming our young people. To begin with, recognizing that youth ministry requires time and talent and consistency we have for many years had a Christian Educator on our full time staff - not to DO all the ministry with youth, but to empower us all to partner with our kids. And every time the youth have wanted to go on a work camp the support by the church has been tremendous. But we can do more. More to make every young person feel welcomed and valued. More to give the kids every chance to ask the hard questions, and give them honest answers. More to say that literally only the world is the limit when it comes to serving others in the name of Christ. Saying to our kids, "We're glad you're here, we want to know you, we want to serve with you, we want to listen to you" is not only up to Jeff or the Youth Committee, as important as they are. It is up to each of us every time we pass a child or teen in the hall - giving them a smile, stopping to ask how they are and what they think. We can do more to make our kids know this is their church.

          And who knows? There may be a Jeremiah or two roving our halls, seeking his or her calling. Who knows? You may be the person through whom that Jeremiah hears the voice of God, that voice that speaks of love and of justice. Who knows? God just may choose to speak to us through that Jeremiah. Let's be sure we are listening! Amen.

Rev. Nancy A. Taylor - Pastor - Contact FCC OR Contact Staff
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