Early this year I visited the Episcopal parish outside Chicago where my family and I used to worship before we moved to California a few years ago. About a dozen 12-to-14-year-olds gathered in a classroom used for daycare during the rest of the week. They pulled out cushions and gathered in a circle on the floor, falling over each other like puppies and talking nonstop.
The lead teacher began with prayer and then asked the kids to share about the previous week. For the better part of 45 minutes, the kids shared their triumphs and trials—a Spanish skit due in the morning that several were dreading, a classmate who was injured during a lacrosse game, a sick neighbor, a good grade on a science test, an upcoming three-day weekend, etc.
As each of the young teens shared, the others attempted to listen with care, but their boundless energy (and ample hormones) often erupted into a cacophony of asides, flirty joking, and epic fidgeting. It was exactly how you’d imagine an assemblage of a dozen junior highers might look and sound. Barely controlled chaos.
That is, until the teacher pulled out his laptop computer and described a video he was about to play called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” The four-minute video was created by and features 22-year-old Jefferson Bethke, a spoken word artist, eloquently voicing his frustrations with organized religion. He says in part:
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion? … I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor? … See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core. It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores …
As the video began to play via YouTube on the teacher’s laptop, the room grew still. The kids were absolutely rapt. You could have heard a pin drop.
After the video ended, the teacher opened up the floor for discussion, and the Sunday school students were chomping at the bit to share their responses. They politely took their turns, speaking and listening respectfully, and their feedback was fascinating.
A pudgy, bespectacled lad with obvious intelligence and a charming guilelessness as yet untouched by teenage self-consciousness said that, while he appreciated what Bethke had to say, in his experience religion had been a good thing. No one at his church would be unkind to anyone who walked through the door on Sunday morning, no matter what his or her race, sexual orientation, or cultural circumstances might be. He had no frame of reference for the kind of frustration Bethke expressed in his video.
Some of the kids nodded in agreement, while a few others pushed back, gently, saying that they understood what Bethke meant or knew people who felt the same way.
It was a fascinating interaction to witness, and, frankly, quite encouraging for me as an older believer. What struck me most, however, was the undeniable draw and power the video had on these members of whatever we decide the generation after Millennials will be called. The video spoke their language.
And this experience is not just anecdotal. At this writing, Bethke’s video had been viewed more than 19 million times and had spawned dozens of video responses, more than a few of them from kids the same age as the ones I hung out with in St. Mark’s Sunday school classroom.
The lesson for me, as the parent of a middle school child, was to pay closer attention. To popular culture and new media. To the music I can’t stand but my son can’t get enough of. To the trends and fads that seem utterly vapid to me but have meaning for kids my son’s age even though they might not yet have the language to articulate it. To the passions of children and their language, even—or perhaps especially—when it sounds foreign to me.
May we grown-ups remember that no one knows how the seeds planted in a young heart will grow, blossom, and transform our world.
Cathleen Falsani (@GodGrrl) is web editor and director of new media for Sojourners and author, most recently, of Belieber!: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieber. This column originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of Sojourners Magazine.