Penny Hunter wasn't as guarded as she intended in her phone conversation with a colleague from a human rights ministry where she served. Her son, Zach, wasn't supposed to hear.
But the topic of conversation sounded like slavery — slavery, now, in Zach's world, rather than in his history books. He demanded to know more about human trafficking and soon told his parents, "I think God wants me to end slavery."
"I responded, 'You're 12. What are you going to do?' " Penny says, laughing. "We're a prime example of what you don't do as a parent."
Despite her own work toward ending human trafficking, Penny had insulated her son. She feared that the world's harsh truths would be too much for him to handle. But her experience with her budding teen quickly proved the contrary and plunged the Hunters into a family mission that has spurred deeper faith and relationships.
"God convicted me that, in trying to protect Zach, I might have been shielding him from an incredible joy and more courageous life," Penny says. "I also discovered that knowing the truth doesn't have to make you sad and distraught. It can actually be empowering, as I watched with my son. Once you understand you're invited into the joy of providing relief, it's the most wonderful, captivating life you can live."
Acting in faith
Zach Hunter created Loose Change to Loosen Chains (LC2LC), a campaign to raise awareness and money to help free modern-day slaves. (Estimates run as high as 27 million people in slavery today.) The initial effort brought in nearly $10,000, mostly from kids' and families' stray coins.
By 18, Zach had spoken internationally to hundreds of thousands of kids and parents and had authored three books. He became a voice for his generation, calling them to follow God into His work of compassion.
Zach is a leader but not an anomaly. Countless more teens have engaged themselves in compassionate action to help the poor or others in need, either locally or abroad. Behind each young leader, though, is a family devoting time, energy and resources to support him or her.
It's especially easy for Internet- and media-savvy kids to see real individuals living a disparate reality from their own — and to know they can help. Christian families simply need to foster an understanding that compassionate action and social justice are vital in a biblical worldview.
Justice, defined most simply, is righting a wrong committed against someone else. It's a recurrent biblical theme, one that clearly matters to God. In Isaiah 1:17, God commands His people, "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." James 1:27 teaches that a pure religion includes caring for orphans and widows in their distress. And Jesus taught, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).
Concrete-minded teens coming to grips with their faith long to connect belief and action. Engaging with compassion helps them engage the Gospel on a visceral level, as well as break free from the self-centeredness and materialism that can easily plague adolescence.
Serving and advocating for others can also draw an entire family into deeper faith, stronger relationships and a thriving joy that transcends the struggles and routines of daily life. You don't have to solve all the world's problems, but you can lead your teens into meaningful action.
Ways to Get Started
- Check your attitude. Does your language reflect a "we're not like them" attitude? Do you ignore the homeless on the corner?
- Use story. Find a real example of someone similar to your teens' ages to introduce a need.
- Serve together. Invite your kids into the discussion of finding solutions to needs. Join them in action.
- Trust your teens. Be careful not to overprotect or get in your teens' way when they endeavor to follow a God-given passion.
- Start where you are. Consider those you know who are widows, orphans, the hungry and the poor. They're all in your community.
- Ritualize. Set dates on the calendar for family service. Use seasonal ties such as Advent or summer vacation.
- Use available tools. Plug in to existing church, parachurch and community organizations to share your abilities.
- Unleash their dreams. Zach says, "The first question kids ask is, 'What are we going to do about it?' " Don't shoot down their audacious goals with practicality or fear.