This October, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen. Since the age of twelve, Malala has spoken out about the importance of education for girls around the world. She is an activist and an inspiration, despite coming from a country and a religion not known for their celebration of women. At seventeen, she has already accomplished more than many of us ever will. The world awaits the change she will bring for girls around the world who seek education.
Just as the world awaits all our girls who have visions of change.
I have worked with teenage girls for several years, both within the church and in secular settings, in youth groups and leadership programs. I've seen girls with passion and direction solve problems in their communities and serve the people around them in astounding ways. Unfortunately, more often than not, I see these girls rise up from secular realms rather than from church congregations.
Empowering girls as ministry leaders cultivates women who are empowered to do just that—to lead, serve, and minister to those around them. All too often, we are focused on raising "good Christian girls"—girls who are friendly and cheerful, modest and humble, neither pushy nor outspoken. And of course, we do want our girls to be humble and friendly. And yet, when I think about what the world needs from the next generation of women, I think the world truly needs women who will speak out, who will take a stand, have an opinion, and tell the truth. The world needs girls to be passionate, to break the mold, to fight for others, to fight against injustice.
So here are a few lessons I've learned about empowering our young girls to inspired action:
Inspire while instructing. Good instruction is important. We do need to teach our young girls about the Bible, about developing healthy habits and relationships, about dating and sex, about telling their friends about the gospel, and about following Jesus' example. But, we need to do so in a way that connects and resonates, and even more importantly, we need to inspire young girls to act and stand up for the "least of these."
Why wait? Often we assure teenagers, and even young (unmarried) adults, that their time will come. We encourage them to think about their future spouses, future vocation, and future calling from God. It took me a long time to realize that I couldn't wait for the future to happen. I couldn't wait to be a leader. I couldn't wait to make a difference until I had all the experiences and authority I thought I needed. If I had waited for those things, well, I'd still be waiting. If Malala had waited, her powerful voice and perspective would be missing from the world. There's no reason to wait. If you have a good idea, if you want to make a difference, if you feel God leading you now to do something, do it! And support young girls doing the same. Our young girls need adults to stand behind them and say, you can do it.
It's okay to fail. I've known a lot of young girls whose fear of failure had kept them from acting, speaking up, or taking the lead. We put a lot of expectations on our girls in the church: Be pure. Be modest. Be humble. Be good. Be polite. Be a good example. Be a light. How often do we remind them to be who they are and to be generous with themselves? How often do we remind them that nothing can separate them from the love of God? No matter how badly or how often they fail, that does not change who they are in God's eyes. That should give our girls freedom to try and fail. We need to give girls the space to make mistakes without judgment and the support to get through them without it devastating their confidence or keeping them from trying again.
Turn their passion into action. Our teenage girls are trying to find their place in the world. They're trying to figure out how to follow Christ and be who they are. Help them identify what they are most passionate about. Help them connect that to the gospel message, and then help them act and advocate. I worked with a small, but passionate youth group a couple years ago that much preferred going out into the community as allies and servants than listening to the Sunday sermon. So, help them figure out the ways they want to act and be the hands and feet of Christ, and then support them in that.
Hand over the reins. The most important part of helping a teen girl find her passion is letting her find her passion. We need to validate her passion and then ask, what's next? And then let her come up with the answer. It's tempting for adults to take over and make the plans, but allowing a girl to figure out the details empowers her and shows her how to lead from start to finish. It requires research and community involvement and great adult support, but there's no reason a teenage girl can't start now and take control. Let her find a way to make a difference for Christ.
The world needs more women leaders. If we want that to happen, we need to start with teen girls. It's surprising how many young women leaders, like Malala, we already have, but have failed to recognize and encourage. So, let's hear more words and support directed toward girls about how to advocate, how to serve, and how to lead. If you give a girl the chance, she'll take her passion for Christ and turn it into something incredible.