I have been working with adolescents and emerging adults in faith-based settings for 15 years. I’ve seen a lot:
• From bathroom walls to Facebook walls to Snapchat.
• From high schoolers selling drugs on the roof of the “Family Life Center” to students raising money to fight human trafficking by up-cycling donated t-shirts.
• From college students working three jobs to avoid crippling student loan debt while trying to keep up with a full class load to former college students working three jobs to pay down the crippling student loan debt they accrued while trying to keep up with a full class load.
• From Columbine to Sandy Hook to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
In my work, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a bright and deeply thoughtful high school student who, after informing me of her weighty home responsibilities, mentioned a frustrating encounter with a teacher who had accused her of “mailing it in” when she failed to give her “all” on a test for which she had stayed up all night studying. On top of her demands at home and in the numerous AP classes she’s taking at her ultra-competitive school, this student has a full extra-curricular calendar that includes leadership in her church among all the leadership activities she has trouble keeping up with.
In the midst of her run-on-sentence apology for missing youth group, I interrupted to remind her that if the Church can survive bad marketing, burnings, slavery, genocide, colonialism and church skits, I think it’ll keep humming along nicely even if you occasionally skip youth group to take a nap.
Her eyes then filled with tears, and because I’m sucker for that sort of thing, so did mine.
In a world characterized by 7.5 million adolescents on psychotropic medication, 7th-grade ACT test prep, an average of 30 minutes of homework per night for kindergartners, private soccer coaches overseeing the wind sprints of 4-year-olds, and teenagers who believe suicide might remedy that one neglected paper that has already “ruined their lives,” it’s time to ask what role “youth ministry” plays in the life of a religious organization with diminishing resources for, and diminishing influence among, young people desperately in need of support.
Here are two proactive steps for you and your faith community to consider:
1. Collaborate instead of compete.
No matter your church size, collaborate (instead of competing) with other faith communities in your area in order to uncover what adolescents and their families actually need (and not what your individual church needs from adolescents and their families). Work to create an ecumenical net of support where each church occupies a unique role in holding up students struggling to survive a culture defined by toxic stress, anxiety and scarcity. For example, the world probably doesn’t need 37 VBS programs every summer from the 37 churches in your community, but it might need adolescent homework support groups, forums on technology use in schools and what it’s contributing to students’ inability to sleep through the night, or even a way to mobilize families to ask better questions of their children’s schools – such as why the significant increase in homework has had no verifiable improvement in student performance but has resulted in students with more anxiety than the average psychiatric patient in 1950.
“Work to create an ecumenical net of support where each church occupies a unique role in holding up students struggling to survive a culture defined by toxic stress, anxiety and scarcity.”
While you’re at it, instead of shaming families in your church for “choosing” sports, Saturday ACT test prep, or viola camp over worship (as if, in our performance based culture, they even had a choice about their kids extracurricular plans), why don’t we collaborate with them by ordaining them as non-anxious missionaries in a world that is desperate for the good news that grace is already freely given, rather than earned from hard work and the right private tutor.
2. Empower instead of control.
Depression is now the number one cause of disability worldwide, and when it comes to our kids, the numbers are even more troubling. (One study noted that even in an affluent Silicon Valley high school 54 percent of students reported “moderate to severe levels of depression.”) While researchers are mixed on what structural changes must be enacted to alter scholastic and environmental factors affecting adolescent mental health, they agree on one, small-scale change: increased autonomy for kids.
When we allow adolescents the opportunity to choose how they engage with faith (or don’t), how they experiment with the faith (or don’t), when to opt out (or in) if they need to, and what components of congregational life make sense to them (rather than to the expectations we have of them), what we discover — without hiring a new worship leader or increasing the dodgeball budget — is a durable faith. Autonomy breeds resiliency in kids and in their individual expressions of Christianity, especially when these kids are rooted in congregations brimming over with institutional warmth and opportunities for non-parental intergenerational relationships.
“Depression is now the number one cause of disability worldwide, and when it comes to our kids, the numbers are even more troubling.”
It also helps when we engage kids regularly with opportunities to get their hands dirty alongside underserved populations. Thanks to the increased risk involved in this kind of work, the release of oxytocin in their brains (a natural anxiety reducing chemical) and the concretization of the teachings of Jesus in their literal hands and feet, thoughtful justice-seeking activities with adolescents create opportunities for faith to imprint itself in a profound way on the hearts and minds of kids desperate for non-anxious hope in a world of 24-hour news and grim church budget meetings.
While it may be scary for churches, parents and other adults to collaborate with adolescents by giving them space for autonomy before they seem ready, it seems even scarier when once they’re free of our micromanaging control they never come home again, even when they have kids of their own.
Who knew youth ministry could be so challenging – and so important?
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