Should We Help Teens Occupy the Church?

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I remember the first time I voted for president. It was November 1984, my first semester of college. Mondale versus Reagan. I read up on the candidates. I watched the debates. When election day came, I proudly voted . . . and my guy lost. I voted again in 1988 . . . and my guy lost that time, too. And the time after that. Despite these setbacks, my excitement about voting did not wane. In fact, I haven't missed an opportunity to vote in national election since those days of my youth, though now when I cast my ballot I do so with an abundance of cynicism. Gone is much of the political passion of my youth.

Which is why I can't help but admire the passion of the Occupy Wall Street protestors. If we are to believe the cries of some on the right, these demonstrators are just a bunch of "young hippie troublemakers." Of course, the truth is that many (though certainly not all) of the protestors are youth. And perhaps the "hippie" label isn't all that far-fetched either. Historically, the label "hippie" came from words "hip" or "hep," countercultural youth slang in the 1960s that was derived from an African American word meaning "to be aware."

Youth of today are certainly aware, perhaps more so than the generation of their parents—my generation. They are aware that the political and economic systems in the United States are tilted in favor of a small percentage of the population. They are aware that in their lifetimes our country has never been free of the shadow of war and those who profit from it. They are aware that a college education no longer guarantees well-paying employment and that companies and corporations are ready to send any job overseas if it helps them turn a profit. The youth of today are aware, and they are passionate about trying to bring about change.

Some are so ready for change that they don't think they should have to wait to vote. They are ready now. Teens in Lowell, Massachusetts are campaigning to lower the voting age to 17 so that they may vote in citywide elections, arguing that it's the perfect time to learn about the process while they have the guidance of their parents and high school teachers. (I recall the challenge of having to navigate the process of absentee voting in college and would have welcomed some help.) This is not the first effort by American youth to try to lower the voting age, but the Lowell teens actually found support among local politicians and made it all the way to the state level before the Secretary of State deemed their efforts unconstitutional. Still the group fights on, hoping to have a ballot measure on the issue ready for 2013.

So why not allow younger teens to vote—even for president? By age 15 many begin driving cars, holding down jobs, and paying social security tax. At age 17 they can be tried as adults and make a commitment to the military. We might argue that they aren't ready yet to understand the complex issues involved in local and national politics. Yet current brain research argues that the teen brain is at the peak of its efficiency for processing new information, abstract reasoning skills, and some aspects of memory. Who would doubt the teen body is physically more agile than that say, of a 45-year-old? Now we know that, in many ways, their brains are also more agile and ready to learn. Even if this were not the case, would we argue that every adult who votes does so having clearly thought about every issue and carefully studied every candidate? Of course not. So why place such an expectation on teens, many of whom have a passion to be part of the political process and to influence change within their communities and the country?

Admittedly, changing the laws to lower the voting age is not likely to happen any time soon. But perhaps the Church itself could help to pave the way forward. Rather than relegating teens to the backseat of Church life, as we so often do, why not invite them into positions of leadership and responsibility? Instead of limiting teen participation to joining the youth group or leading on one token Sunday of the year, why not invite adolescents to serve as the chairs of church committees and ministry teams or as leaders of worship? Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, we might find that allowing teens to lead and make decisions creates some messiness and inconvenience for those of us already in positions of power, but the passion of youth might also help to propel the Church into exciting new expressions of mission, ministry, and change for the better. Many of our teens are too young, perhaps, to participate in Occupy Wall Street. But they are certainly ready to Occupy the Church. Are we ready to let their voices be heard?