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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

August, 2014

A Harvard University study earlier this year, released under the title “The Children We Mean To Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” revealed that, while parents say they believe it’s more important for their children to be good people than to be individually successful, their children don’t believe them. Instead, the children believe their parents would prefer that they be successful—at virtually any cost. According to the study, “Our youth’s values appear to be awry, and the messages that adults are sending may be at the heart of the problem.”

The study, by the “Make Caring Common” project, reveals that only about 20% of 10,000 children surveyed said “caring for others” was more important than personal success. Some youth articulated the philosophy “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.” But according to child psychologist Michele Borba, a lack of empathy actually impedes a person’s ability to succeed. Empathy, she said, is “. . . the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.” Yet the Harvard study indicated that “We don’t seem to be preparing large numbers of youth to create [the] society [we need.]”

A 2012 survey by the University of Virginia showed that 96% of the parents said that empathy and strong moral character were more important than anything else. But three quarters of the youth in the Harvard study said their parents would be more proud of good grades than of their being a caring member of their community.

The authors of the Harvard study made recommendations, which included “Children and youth need ongoing opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, sometimes with guidance from adults.” And—no surprise—they recommended that parents provide strong positive role models. The authors pointed out that there “. . . may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day.” There may be a gap? Really? Seriously, none of us—least of all me—“practice what we preach” all the time (Rom. 7:18b-19). And this is to the detriment of our youth.

Our adult Sunday School class has been studying the book of James. One of the best known passages from this book is “. . . faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:17b ESV). You might say these youth are hearing “faith” but they’re not seeing “works.” When the Pharisees demonstrated similar behavior, Jesus called them “hypocrites” and worse (Matt. 15:1-9, 23:1-36; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 13:10-17). We can’t simply give or serve or set an example when it’s convenient or benefits us. In a Biblical worldview, serving others isn’t just for our “excess energy,” it’s our service to God (Acts 20:35; Gal. 6:2; Phil. 2:4). Peter complained to Jesus about sacrifice (Matt. 19:27) and Jesus replied, “‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, . . . many who are first will be last, and the last first.’” (vs. 28a, 30). Later, he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) and when he was finished he said “‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’” (vs. 15 ESV).

At Maplewood UMC, parents and other adults must be doing something right. A number of our youth just returned from a mission trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they worked on homes that belonged to people they didn’t know. Most of the youth were on their second mission trip. Clearly, they’re learning this behavior from someone. Adults are living as not only good citizens of this world but citizens of God’s kingdom (Eph. 2:19) and setting a good example (John 13:35; 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9; 1 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 2:7-8). More important, the youth are seeing the example of Christ through study and worship. I’m proud of our youth and I pray that they will go on to be good citizens of both their society and God’s kingdom.

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice’” (Matt. 23:1-3 ESV.)

Copyright © 2014 by David Phelps