Driving to my office this morning, I reflected on what I’ve been hearing about Nelson Mandela in the last day. That led to a change of topic for this morning’s youth ministry class as I hurriedly scribbled down some notes on the top of a donut box while waiting at a few red lights. Here’s why I think Mandela matters for youth ministry.
1. High school and college provide the perfect context for shaping lifelong values. Both peers and former students have been reflecting on Mandela via Facebook, and one of the common messages I’ve heard is that they were first drawn to this remarkable figure in late adolescence. People have said again and again that they became aware of and interested in Mandela’s work when they were in high school. Bono noted that Mandela has been a guide to him since he was 18 years old, when U2 did its first anti-apartheid concert. President Obama recalled his fascination with Mandela’s writings in college and then with Mandela’s release from prison while in law school. The late teen years are some of the most malleable, and we need to continually bring examples of inspiring people who practically demonstrate the gospel.
2. Mandela was a model of reconciliation in the midst of oppression and suffering under the inhuman practices of apartheid. His legacy of peaceful, non-violent resistance is a welcome example for students living in a violent world. This is especially poignant when we understand that Mandela himself was once an advocate for violence, participating in the ANC’s rogue bombing campaigns. It was during his 27 years of brutal incarceration that Mandela found the way of peace. The importance of forgiveness and reconciliation was demonstrated at his presidential inauguration when he invited his jailors to take seats of honor in the front row. In an age of terrorism, nuclear armament and escalating global tensions (not to mention violent neighborhoods and campuses), Mandela’s long, patient, hopeful commitment to love and forgiveness is a story that must be told to our teens.
3. Leading sometimes requires getting out of the way. Mandela believed so strongly in the democratic process that he did not allow himself to become a dictator. He stepped down from the presidency of South Africa after only one term. He moved out of the way and allowed others to lead. This is a lesson that every leader needs to learn. Pastors sometimes stay in ministries longer than they should. I’ve often said that I always want to leave a position before I’m asked to. I try to work myself out of a job—to empower and equip students and congregants to do ministry in such a way that I’m no longer needed. Adolescents, especially college-aged males, tend to believe that good leadership is demonstrated in aggressive action and strong management. On the contrary, if the Spirit of God inhabits the hearts of all his people, than we must step out of the way at times and let others contribute.
4. We need to listen to all voices, but especially to the minority. Mandela wouldn’t discount or minimize anybody, even those with whom he disagreed. Having been a minority voice himself, all people and perspectives mattered to him. The downside of democracy is that decisions are made by the majority, which typically leaves those in the minority feeling like losers. Decision making becomes a contest rather than a communal process. The prophets continually condemned God’s people for neglecting minority populations: the widows, the orphans and the aliens (those from other countries). Jesus infuriated the ruling class of religious leaders by hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and “sinners.” We can use Mandela’s story to teach high school and college students the importance of listening to minority people groups, positions and voices.
It frustrates me when ministry leaders don’t bring real-world examples into their teaching and preaching. The Bible was never meant to be a book of propositions isolated from cultural context. It is in Nelson Mandela that we have an example of kingdom values. These are the values that I must continually illustrate and model to students.
I have watched films and read the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but I’ve never really known them because they were transformative leaders of a past era. I’m grateful to have lived in the same generation as Nelson Mandela so that I could see the power of love and forgiveness first-hand. But I’m left wondering, who will be the Gandhi, the MLK or the Mandela of my kids’ generation? Is it even possible in this world of hyper-technology and instantaneous global media coverage for a person to make such great strides toward change? Maybe not. And that is all the more reason to talk about “Madiba” with our teens.