Why I'm Tired of Thankful Teenagers
I know, I know… The immediate question some of you might ask is, “What’s a thankful teenager?!” It is a rare blessing when after youth group a student sticks around to say, “Hey, thanks for giving a great talk tonight!” or when a student says to his parents, “I really appreciate all the time and gas it takes to haul me around!” But I have never seen more thankful teenagers than I do on paper at the end of each mission trip week, and frankly I’m a little tired of it. Let me explain why…
It’s Friday on YouthWorks sites. Church vans are crisscrossing the nation on their way home after a week of loving and learning from incredible communities. And at every YouthWorks site, staff teams will pass youth evaluations around a circle and read them together. The third question we ask students is, “What did you learn from this community?” And among some really incredible answers (and some not-so-incredible answers) is some variation of this very common response:
“I learned to be much more thankful for what I have.”
A great phenomenon of mission trips is that participants start to recognize that there are people in this world who go without some of the things we might take for granted every day – job opportunities, solid education, food in the fridge, a fridge, a home, a support system, consistent care, encouragement… and the list goes on. Somehow some of us never thought about the reality of going without these things, and when that reality is brought before our eyes, it can be shocking. And we respond with kneejerk gratitude for the good things in life – as we should.
But when I read a response like the one above, I tend to think, “Great! … And?”
You see, I am concerned that some teenagers leave these incredibly rich service-learning experiences with the idea that thankfulness is their grand finale, when it is merely meant to be the opening act.
God tells his followers again and again in Scripture to be thankful:
“Devote yourself to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Col. 4:2)
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Col. 3:15)
“…give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thes. 5:18)
And again and again these directives to be thankful are couched in the context of instructions to do something! (Just go read the surrounding verses for the above passages.) We are to be thankful not as an end, but because gratitude takes us down the path toward authentic worship, humble service and deeper love.
But thankfulness on its own is like…
…fresh produce that grows moldy on the shelf.
…marveling at beautiful wings but never jumping from the nest.
…that pack of Mentos that is just sitting there next to a dormant bottle of Diet Coke.
Thankfulness that doesn’t energize expires.
Thankfulness that merely preoccupies misses its true purpose.
Thankfulness that isn’t synthesized into our latent lives is wasted just within reach of something explosively wonderful.
As students move from their mission trip back home, from back home to back-to-school, from back-to-school to into the hum of everyday life – my hope is that they will move beyond gratitude to gracious action. That they will not only consider what they are thankful for but think about how that gratitude will change them. I am tired of teenagers who are only thankful, because I know that there is incredible potential boiling just beneath the surface – a world of opportunity when teenagers’ appreciation evolves into action.
Sam Townsend loves wooded trails on warm summer days, full conversations over half-price apps and puns that could make a grown man groan. He is a writer, a third-generation footlong hotdog salesman and the Senior High Ministry Pastor at Calvary Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s also a big fan of YouthWorks, where he contributes to theme material creation and blog production.