By Tim Gossett
As an individual with a hearing disability, I'm drawn to the story of Jesus healing a deaf man in Mark 7:31-37. In particular, I find Jesus' words instructive for the church today. He didn't say, "Get that earwax out of your ears!" His words weren't, "Try listening a little closer," or even simply, "Be healed." Instead, Jesus' command was the Aramaic word ephphatha, be opened.
There is seemingly profound "deafness" all around us. Daily, we hear that polarization between political, racial, religious, ethnic, and other groups abounds, with little meaningful dialogue to bring the disparate parties together. So how can we help the youth in our congregations to "be opened" in a world where people close their ears to one another?
1. Be open to dialogue: Youth do hear the messages of those around them in the church. Sometimes, subtle messages reflect closure within the church: "Republicans are harming our country." "Gays and lesbians are in need of transformation:' "We're not like that church down the street:' So, rather than talking about other groups, talk with them. Regularly bring speakers in to your youth group or Sunday school classes from other denominations, religions, racial and ethnic groups, socio-economic groups, and so on. Offer to host events with other youth groups in town including those with different theological points of view. Perhaps you may wish to invite an expert mediator or communications instructor to assist the youth in learning the skills of careful, reflective listening and consideration of another's viewpoint.
2. Be open to those in need: Few things open youth's understanding of the world and of other people like trips to build homes in Mexico, working in communities in our own country that are struggling economically, and sharing a week at an "exceptional persons" camp. Don't only allow the senior high youth to take weeklong mission trips; begin offering such experiences to your younger youth too. Intergenerational events can also be created that allow older children to experience the realities of poverty, homelessness, and hunger. All of these kinds of events help youth to not be deaf to the needs of those around them.
3. Be open to a variety of understandings of Scripture: Upon taking a university-level class in Bible, many young people are stunned by the gap between the more literalistic approach they heard in church and what they learn in the classroom as they study the Bible as a textbook. Some even reject their faith.
You can help prevent this by being honest with youth about biblical scholarship. Help them to understand that studying the Bible as story does not invalidate its truth. Invite the pastor in to share some of the techniques he or she learned in seminary for studying the Bible. Use the book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bible Study for Teens by William Grimbol for a book and Bible study. As youth learn more about various approaches to Scripture, they'll be better equipped to talk with friends who try to use the Bible as a weapon or to prove their stances on controversial issues.
4. Be open to ministry by youth: Not long ago, churches created ministries for the deaf. Today, churches recognize that deaf people are a unique socio-linguistic minority, and leadership by deaf people for deaf people has created many new ministries and leaders within the deaf community. Similarly, many churches are still not listening to the importance of offering youth meaningful leadership opportunities.
Break down those barriers by putting youth in charge of leading youth group lessons, the organization of a retreat or a ski trip, the creation of a new ministry, or a monthly worship service for their peers. Over time, the adults in your congregation will come to see and value the youth as leaders and ministers.
5. Finally, be opened to encouraging your congregation to listen to the very spiritual lives of teenagers: At the end of the healing story in Mark, the formerly deaf man shares his life with others. Likewise, youth need opportunities to share their understandings of God with all of us so that all of us can hear more clearly the ways God is at work in the world today.
Tim Gossett is director of Christian education and adult ministries at Collegiate United Methodist Church/Wesley Foundation in Ames, Iowa. In addition, he is the editor of Bible Lessons for Youth and has written or edited much of the Faith in Motion series. You can contact Tim at email@example.com.