By Seth Vopat
“My dog,” one replied.
Another said, “Beauty and the Beast.”
Agreeing with the first response, another responded, “My dog.”
“I think the couple in the movie The Fault in Our Stars,” someone else said.
The question: Does a relationship which demonstrates love come to mind?
We — our middle school youth who I asked afterwards for permission to share our conversation — had just wrapped up reading Paul’s ultimate reflection on love in 1 Corinthians 13. I asked them if they could think of a relationship which best demonstrated love, particularly love as described in the heart of the passage in verses 4-7. The first time around not one person actually mentioned an actual human relationship. “My parents” came almost as an afterthought.
The conversation continued from this recognition that Paul’s description of love between two humans felt more like a fairytale, not a story out of real life. We started exploring why this is. No blame was allocated. Even youth whose parents were divorced didn’t assign any blame. It was agreed by all.
Relationships are hard.
I left the conversation that night pondering what would it look like for us to sit down a year later and again read this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth — asking again, “Can you think of a relationship which matches Paul’s description of love?” The goal being for the next year to create an environment where Paul’s words become reality, not simply ideals to strive for.
This is where we ended the teaching that evening. While 1 Corinthians 13 is most often associated with weddings, Paul actually intended this definition of love to be the very foundation of relationships in the church in general.
The challenge with making Paul’s words a reality is the lack of interaction between generations in the church. The church has gone down the rabbit hole with society and bought into the idea that we learn, work and play best with our own peers. Poof — children and youth ministry as individual branches of the church are born. There is no disputing the fact that creation of separate ministries has attracted many youth who may not have crossed through the doors of a church otherwise. But what encourages youth to enter through our doors does not necessarily lead to great discipleship.
For youth to experience the reality of love Paul is describing, they need to witness adults who share in each other’s lives — the moments of celebration, the struggles and, most importantly, the healthy working through of conflicts and disagreements. When we ponder Paul’s description of love clearly there is recognition of the fact life will have its difficult moments. Why else would love need to be patient? Why does love need to keep no record of wrongs?
We all have our rough edges. We are not machines; we cannot always be at our best. We are all going to have moments where we later need to ask someone’s forgiveness and receive grace. This is what it means to be a church and what our youth need to witness.
I realize what I am suggesting can be difficult and sounds better on paper. A couple of years ago I tried an experiment for Lent. We intentionally created a set of services for Wednesday night right in the middle of the time our youth meet together regularly. I had told the youth ahead of time our goal was to come together as one church during this important time of year as we reflected on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. So for one hour all of our middle and high school youth sat in the same space with our adults. It was six weeks filled with several awkward and beautiful moments.
Paul is right. Our middle school youth are right. Relationships are hard, especially when we are not use to spending much time together in our society. But Jesus, Paul and all the other multitudes of witnesses never said church would be easy.
If church isn’t going to be relegated to fairytale we are going to have to create spaces which more or less might be awkward to begin with. I imagine Jesus and Paul experienced their fair share of awkward moments as they welcomed people to the table who came from all walks of life and were seen as less than ideal by the rest of society.