I’m spending my mornings at Yale this week. The Youth Ministry Initiative (http://www.youthministryinitiative.org/ ) has lined-up several speakers from around the country for the week. Rather than summarize everything we’ve covered at the conference – I want to make a general statement, share a thesis from the research I’ve heard, and propose a trajectory (not a plan or even a strategy) to start thinking about what this means for ministry – both in my own congregation and beyond.
First the statement – young people today have a rough go at it.
Adults might think the opposite – that today’s youth have more opportunities than many other generations put together. But that’s exactly it – they are expected to do everything, and failure comes at a high price. Remember when you just went out and played as a kid and came home when it was time for supper, or played ball, because you just wanted to, or read just for fun? Today’s kids are expected to perform, conform and project an image of themselves that pleases adults in almost every venue they find themselves; along with the ongoing pressure that every choice they make (or don’t make) relates to the resume they are building for college.
Several years ago I took some High School Youth on a church trip – when I gave them some free-time they had no idea what to do with it. Many had never experienced free-time; since their lives were so over programmed. That was 2006. Since then the über-competitive culture that only promises if you can’t keep up you’ll be left behind has only exponentially amplified. Every adult that cares at all about young people should be concerned about what the pressure does to a person developmentally, socially and psychologically; especially in an environment like ours where opportunities abound. Someone at the conference commented that people around the country call the region between New Jersey and New England, the “Anxiety Belt.” Another person commented that a headmaster they knew in Greenwich, CT at a private prep school said, “I’m tired of perfect applications. What I’m looking for is some passion.”
Do we harness the passion or snuff it out? Are we teaching passion by over programming our young people without time for reflection? Are we driving it out of young people by conforming them into the people we want them to be, or are we enabling them to explore their unique giftedness? Is the greater failure not trying something new or the shame when things do not go according to plan? Do we let our young people see our passion? Do we invite them to discern the wisdom gained from failure? Are we taking a vested interest in helping them catch passion from us, or do we assume they will just discover it on their own?
Second, a thesis – we send our young people away, right when they need us most.
The research suggests adolescence can stretch into mid to late 20s. This shift has been taking place over the last several decades for a variety of factors: People are going to school longer, starting their independent lives later, and society in general has become increasingly more fragmented and complicated. At the same time adults (as a whole) seem less vested and interested in direct contact with young people. These challenges need adequate structures to help engage them.
Most congregations are designed to provide a rite of passage – like confirmation and/or youth group – for young teenagers. We should ask if this is still working. Many of these ministries are designed to suit a different age. For example – in 1900, 1 in 10 people in the U.S. attended high school. They started working as teenagers, started getting married in their late teens or earlier twenties and then began having families – many in the same town of their origins. Confirming them as young teenagers bridged these young people into leadership in their faith community as they settled into their adult lives.
A little over a hundred years later, we live in a time where the process of maturing into adulthood takes longer than earlier generations. Assuming our kids achieve the hopes we have for them and go off to college, it takes them away from home. We assume that is “normal” for them to “go away” to school. The likelihood that they will resettle close by our current home, marry and start having children within a few years is remote. How do we prepare them for that? When young people start discerning their identity, we confirm them, and many see this “graduating” from church. When they start asking good questions about foundations and assumptions –we send them away to begin their lives without the support of our congregational life to receive them on the other end. Are we surprised that so many people drop out of church during these years? Our congregational systems are designed to support a stable, multigenerational community that no longer exists. If we keep carrying on like this – soon the congregations won’t exist either. We need to rethink how we do faith formation; not just as a congregation, but probably as networks of congregations – and I think the answer to how we relate to youth within our congregations has much more to do with adults and children actively ministering together , than it does developing a better Sunday School ministry, confirmation curriculum, or youth program.
What if we saw all of our ministry as youth ministry? What it we changed our perception of offering things “to” or “for” young people, but did things “with” them? Rather than compartmentalize our age groups, what could we do together? What might adults teach children? What might children teach adults? What might youth add to the ministry because they are not only welcome into it, but are seen as an essential voice in the conversation?
Third –seeing our young people as our greatest asset God has given us.
All ministry starts with Jesus. Our constant challenge is how to effectively communicate Jesus as Christ and welcome people into his life, death, and resurrection. At this stage I have more questions than solutions. I can’t propose a three-part plan to implement a sound strategy to support young people into adulthood in a life of faith. But standing in the life of Christ, I can ask good questions. You can too. And I think the first step is turning our primary question around.
Most of the time when we think of our young people and faith we ask questions of retention:
How do we get the kids involved? How can they participate? What space, program, or project can we offer to keep them interested? How do we keep them and their families around, especially when they are so busy?
These are questions many ministries have been asking. But I think it is time to consider a different tack. Rather than seeing our goal as getting young people to help our whole congregations, we should ask how our whole congregations can help young people.
We should be asking questions of preparation:
How do we support young people and their families in Christ, as we live in our current environment of hyperactivity? Where does faith intersect with this hyperactive culture where kids are over programmed, parents are running around as much as their kids are, other caring adults that have much to give are scarce, and everybody is exhausted? How do we “send” our kids with the ability to ask and discern as they engage faith and life questions? What help do we need to continue to communicate Jesus on the other end?
I don’t know the answers to how we do this, and do it well, (OK, I have a few ideas….) but I believe we can start to think together on it by claiming a bold assumption about our life in Christ together:
OUR YOUNG PEOPLE ARE THE GREATEST GIFT AND RESOURCE GOD GIVES OUR COMMUNITY.
God gives us new life through another generation. If we can hold this assumption central as we plan our congregational life around the promises of Christ – I’m confident we can start thinking about how we better support our children, youth and their families, inviting them into partnership and ministry, and train the next generation of leaders to share Jesus with others. It may look drastically different from the way things have been – but we also live in a new age, where the assumptions and starting places are not the same from even ten years ago. We need to continue to adapt as we welcome, serve and share the good news of Jesus who continues to meet us in the complexities of this world as he calls us into the ever-unfolding Kingdom of God.
For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1Timothy 4:10-12)