Laying on your side. Waltzing around naked. “Belting your cloak” (hiking up your pants) and outrunning a horse and chariot. Eating scrolls. On the surface, biblical prophets are, in a word, odd. But why? Might they still have something very relevant and powerful to offer our communities in the world today? Are there prophets among us even now? What are the prophets saying?
“But Then . . .”
Our youth group at Church of the Servant in Wilmington, NC is made up of highly intelligent, thoughtful, honest young people. They amaze me every time I am with them, and they give me such hope for the world. That being said, sometimes it seems hard to offer something “bible-y” and relevant to the wild world they are being asked to exist within. The number of times my students have casually spoken to me about school lockdowns in the same breath as school projects or their social lives is both shocking and angering.
Early in my first school year with this group, the lectionary offered a passage from Amos. Amos is my favorite prophet. He is certainly on the low end of the “weird actions scale.” Scripture talks about him tending the sycamore trees, which was an important, official type of work in the economy of his time. The sycamore fruit (a type of mulberry) needed to be punctured prior to harvest. Amos was a fruit stabber. But then something happened, and he began to heed this whisper in his heart. Something in his guts. He began speaking the Word of God to the powerful. And that is what I presented to the group: “But then . . .”
Because it was my first year, I wanted to establish a foundation while also giving the group ownership. This lectionary passage quickly turned into a conversation about prophets: what they are not and what they are. We concluded that they are not magicians or wizards (although igniting a drenched pile of wood with sky fire is quite the Copperfield flex). But then we talked about what they are. We talked about righteousness and justice, what those words mean, and if those ideas have any application in the world we live in today.
Righteousness and Justice
This brief mention of Amos in the lectionary sprung us into a broader, multi-week conversation and ultimately our theme for the year. We discussed righteousness as a standard or a right and equitable relationship among all people no matter their place in society. We discussed justice as the concrete actions taken to correct wrongs (injustice) and create righteousness — in other words, speaking truth to power and then putting action to the speaking. That is the role of the prophet. That is what a prophet does. Do they use some odd methods to do so? For sure. That is just how they get people’s attention.
I asked my students to tell me who the prophets are in their world(s). Whom do they see as prophets, and what are they speaking to? They were given time to bring back some answers. They mentioned everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders from the Civil Rights Movement to President Obama to favorite artists and creators who speak to them. We talked about what these people did and the impact of their actions and their words. Then we talked about my students and what their roles are among each other, in our community, in their schools, with their families, and in this world. We discussed how so often this world looks more difficult for so many people around us and how even they, despite their youth (which is often projected as a negative thing), might be called to the work of prophets. This conversation became our guide for the year.
Doing the Work of Prophets
We made a list of things they wanted to use their power and voices to speak to. The list was so large that we had to pick and choose which items we would focus on. We took part in a clean-up at a local waterway. We went as a group to purchase Christmas gifts for a local family in need. We used the youth-led “Shrove Pancake Supper Dinner Extravaganza” as a fundraiser for a local human trafficking organization. For me, the fun part was asking them how much of the profits from what they raised (which was considerable) they wanted to give because this was their thing. This was on them. They were instantly in the camp of “we don’t need this money,” and they donated it. Why? I can think of a few reasons:
- We made scripture accessible and connected it to their world and the things they see and experience. So many times our church conversations seem to stay sterile and safe. Nothing organic and wild happens in sterile environments. The work of prophets is messy.
- We gave them ownership of their experience. Something truly magical happens when young people are given the ability to lead. The trafficking organization was 100% their idea. They heard that what they thought about justice and righteousness mattered. So many movements throughout history were led by young people, and it is always the right time for it to happen again.
- Children and young people are wired for goodness. They see the world in a very holistic way, maybe more than any generation has before. In my humble opinion, their propensity for welcome, grace, love, and equality is unmatched. We should put them in charge of all of the things.
What Are the Prophets Saying?
The old adage is that young people are the future, and we often echo that in the church while putting them in the backseat. I truly believe the future of the church in our world, especially in the West, does not simply rest on young people in the future but far more on how we choose to give them space to express themselves and lead now. Data shows that younger generations — millennials, Gen Z — are not necessarily leaving the faith as much as they are leaving the organizational religious structures and renegotiating the faith they were given. Their powerful, loud, honest, and truthful voices are still speaking; they are just going out there into the world with it because that is where they are being led. That is where they find space. That is what prophets do. Our youth heed that whisper in their hearts, something in their guts, and they go. As the church body, we should start to listen and see where they lead us. What if we turned our ear to the prophets in our youth groups and children’s ministries?
Honestly, damage has certainly been done by religion. It seems like a new docuseries is being released every week. But I believe that the future of the church is still being decided. We are on a precipice. What if we gave the microphone to our young people? Not just to give them a chance to let us know what they are thinking and feeling, but because we are ready to follow them into the future. It might be awkward, uncomfortable, and maybe even a little loud. There might be some weird “prophetic acts,” but they will simply be trying to get people’s attention in order to hear and share the whispers of God that have become amplified in their hearts, in their guts. The church is in one of the greatest periods of change in its history. What are the prophets saying?
Editor’s Note: This article was published on August 28, 2023. It has been updated on August 29, 2023 to remove a broken link.