Imagine you meet a young orphan who always had to fend for themselves. You passionately tell them they are loved by Jesus. Would they understand? How does someone who may never have experienced love on this earth understand the genuine, unconditional love of heaven? The young people you and I work with every day may or may not be orphans. But the world is redefining the word love for today’s generation and I am challenging us to up our game in the way that we love them.

A twisted view of love?

Consider the child whose father told him how much he loved him, before abandoning him and his mother. The reality is that many South African children are fatherless. Or the teenager whose first boyfriend told her he would love her forever… before dumping her for her best friend. When they look beyond their own lives, there is not much to see. The image of love portrayed by Netflix is fickle. The one portrayed by Instagram is image without substance.

If this is the fickle, transient way that our teenagers see love, how can they believe us when we tell them that Jesus truly loves them? Furthermore, how do we show Jesus’ love to a generation who has learned that love always has an ulterior motive, a “what’s in it for me.” Love which is conditional. The young people whom we love and serve are a generation to whom unconditional love is largely unknown. Yet, more than ever, we are compelled to reach young people with Christ’s love. How do we do it?

Untwisting their view of love

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – thought perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

Jesus talks about a self-sacrificial type love towards those who don’t deserve it. The kind of love that we don’t often find on Netflix or Instagram. The kind of love that we need to be showing our teenagers. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But if you’re anything like me, when we are around people for any length of time they see our flaws, our frustrations and our vulnerabilities. I’ve found that teenagers are particularly good at seeing through my “got-it-all-together” mask.

How do we love like Jesus?

I am challenged by author Danny Silk (look him up!) to make the constant decision to love others. Choosing to love our young people in a genuine way challenges our natural response to many situations, particularly those that make us angry or frustrated. It’s in these moments that we may be tempted to withhold our love.

Fear can also tempt us to withhold our active love for our young people, particularly when they sin differently to us and leave us thinking “but I would never do something like that! How could she?” But of course, this sends the all too familiar message that our love is dependent on their behaviour. We haven’t really stopped loving them, but if we allow ourselves to not show active love, it matters little to them.

There are areas of theology that attract a variety of interpretations. But Jesus has not left it open for us to interpret whether we should love, when we should love or whom we should love.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44, 45).

In the end it comes down to who we are, not the fact that we work with young people. As Christians we are the children of God. Our identity is based in the One who made us, the One who is Love in person (1 John 4:8).

So our identity is love.

This remains no matter what conflict situation we find ourselves in or how another is behaving. God is love and therefore so are we. It is our identity and we cannot let another person’s substandard behaviour rob us of that.

Our teenagers need to know that we will actively choose to love them, no matter what they do. It may be the clearest picture of God’s love they get on this earth. Whilst loving confrontation is important, pursuing connection is vital. I remind myself that making someone repent to get them to God’s love is seriously backwards (Romans 2:4).

They will know Christ’s love by the way we love them

A friend of mine displayed this love while volunteering for Red Frogs, an amazing organisation that chooses to love young people where they least expect it.

The Red Frogs team were making some pancakes for some hungover teenagers at the Matric Rage festival. My friend knocked on a room door and presented its sleepy occupant with a fresh pancake. The young man looked down at his pancake, back at my friend and asked “Why do you guys do this? What do you get out of it?” My friend assured him that the “frogs” do it because they genuinely love him and his friends. The puzzled young man’s response? “Are you guys Christians?”

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

The challenge to love

To the youth workers, pastors, parents and teachers, here is our challenge.

To live out our identity as those who are loved by our Heavenly Father and love our young people genuinely in everything that we do, that they may know that they are loved beyond measure by their Father in heaven.

For why else are we doing what we do?