My junior youth group consists mostly of various kinds of Christians, with a couple of Baha’is thrown in. Some aren’t quite sure what religion they are. The subject of religious labels doesn’t come up too often, but because one of the youth and I were fasting, it naturally generated conversation.

One girl asked, “Can you be a Christian and a Baha’i?”

“Well,” I asked, how do you define a Christian?”

Another jumped in, “Someone who goes to church, reads the Bible, and prays.”

The girl responded, “But I hardly ever go to church, I hardly ever read the Bible, and I hardly ever pray, and I’m a Christian. I’ve been saved two times.”

They debated some more. Was a person who believed in Jesus a Christian, or was someone who lived by His teachings? Or did it have to be both?

I threw out, “So if you have one person who says they’re a Christian, but they don’t act like one, and you have another person who acts like a Christian, but doesn’t say they’re one, is either of them a Christian?”

The girl: “The first one’s a hypocrite, but the one who is a good person and acts like a Christian is a Christian.”

“Even if they don’t say they are?”

Another youth added, “What if that person is a Baha’i?”

A pause, as everybody wrangled with the fact that a good Baha’i and a good Christian look an awful lot alike.

To adults who’ve given serious thought to their theology (or lack thereof), this might seem like a frustratingly ignorant discussion. I could understand the urge to jump in with authoritative references and settle the matter once and for all.

But that urge would be wrong.

The junior youth spiritual empowerment program is so vital because it brings about conversations like this. Being nurtured in your own faith community is important, but it’s not enough. The world has an astounding diversity of thought and belief, but we rarely give our young people the social space to discuss these issues with anyone but others like them. When a junior youth group forms in a neighborhood, faith shifts from something done separately and in secret to something that is practiced among friends. The old specter of the double life is quietly laid to rest.

This isn’t a matter of developing tolerance, or even mutual respect. It’s about becoming an integrated human being. The junior youth group is a laboratory for developing the person you really want to be. A place to experiment with being compassionate, creative, and thoughtful. Room for both faith and doubt. Room enough for strong opinions, and permission to change them when they become outgrown. Space in which to develop into an adult you could admire.

Alas, I have no formula for creating the perfect youth. All I have is a series of experiences. These experiences tell me that a diverse group of adolescents, given enough support, opportunity, and time, can grow into the kind of support system it takes to pass into adulthood with integrity.

After all, it takes a village to raise a child. It’s time we remembered that other children are a part of that village, too.