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Adolf Hitler, Guatemala, and culture changing teens

A high school girl from the United States walks off a soccer field, holding the hands of a young Guatemalan boy while on a mission trip in Zacapa,Guatemala (Credit: Brittany Kulick)

My room is cool, dark and quiet, and yet, I’ve been having trouble sleeping for the past few nights. You see, I’ve just returned from two weeks in Zacapa, Guatemala with an incredible group of 13 high school students, and I’m missing the sounds of screaming geckos, the shriek of a girl who found a bat in the bathroom, and the chatter that happened right before bedtime—debriefing the day and comparing journals.

1 Timothy 4:12 is often quoted in youth groups, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” The repetitive use of this verse often diminishes its impact and the gravity. But these words, authored by the Holy Spirit through Paul, touch on the incredible power youth have to change the culture.

Think about Facebook today. Users ages 55+ have increased by more than 80% in the last three years, but this trend wasn’t started by adults. Created by a 19-year-old, Facebook was a site for students only—first college, then high school. The momentum generated by young adults positioned Facebook to become a social media platform with 1.28 billion users today. In the same way, a generation of youth who are fully committed Christ followers would draw others to investigate the God they serve.

Teens usually aren’t making headlines for the positive difference they’re making—instead, we know that the U.S. leads the industrialized world in teen pregnancies, and 75% of all high school students have used addictive substances including tobacco, alcoholmarijuana or cocaine.

But the students I traveled with are not a statistic—they are real teens who love and serve Christ. As I looked for a quote that expresses the way that these high schoolers follow Jesus, I found one that I like: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” I almost didn’t use it when I saw that its author is Adolf Hitler.  However, I believe that its author’s identity makes the quote even stronger. When Hitler “owned” the youth, 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. If one man can impact the world so drastically, how much more can one Man change the culture through youth devoted to him?

What does this look like on a practical level?  My church’s student mission strategy is intentional: local missions in 6th grade, in-state missions in late middle school, in-country missions in 9th grade, and international missions 10-12th grades. As our students’ ministry expands geographically, so does their level of responsibility. As they are trusted for things like cooking, cleaning, and Vacation Bible School writing/ translating/ directing, they receive the message that they’re mature enough to handle not only the physical, but the spiritual, too.

I’ve heard it said that young people don’t have a junior-sized Holy Spirit—the Holy Spirit is one-size-fits-all. When Spirit-led students are trusted by adults, they graduate high school equipped with a world-changing faith of their own.