Teenagers are heat-seeking missiles. They’re drawn to fire. They yearn for experiences that will channel their passions. And by and large they are not detecting many signs of life in the church.
—Cuyler Black, youth pastor, in Fellowship Magazine, June 20011
Someone once told me that every adult is a junior high kid with wrinkles. If that is true—and so far I’d say it’s a pretty fair assessment—then youth ministry is never really just about “ministry with youth.” It is about ministry, about being the church in which young people are called to play an irreplaceable and irrepressible part both now and throughout their adulthood.
Youth ministry—ministry by, with, and for people who hover between the onset of puberty and the enduring commitments of adulthood—is ministry with people who are searching for something, for someone, “to die for,” to use developmental theorist Erik Erikson’s haunting phrase.2 They are looking for a troth worthy of their suffering, a love worthy of a lifetime and not just a Sunday night. In short, they are searching for passion, even (maybe especially) in church. Young people will not seek a God who settles for less. If we’re honest, neither will we.
Dying for Something to Live For
Following the Littleton shootings, where Cassie Bernall was killed after reportedly confessing her belief in God, a stark question flooded Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards: “Would you die for your faith?” A Florida girl’s response on an Internet bulletin board typified hundreds of others: “I haven’t totally pledged all of my being to God. When I heard [Cassie Bernall’s] story I realized she gave up everything. She DIED for Him . . . Would I have done the same?”3
The Columbine story took place at the nexus of passion: the twisted passions of two lonely boys who perceived they had nothing to live for, but also the holy passion of faith—the virtue of fidelity, “a disciplined devotion,”4 as Erikson called it, the strength of having something “to die for.” When young people ask, “Would you die for your faith?” what they really want to know is, “Is Christianity worth it? Is it worth staking a life on, and not just a Sunday night? Because if it’s not—if God isn’t worth dying for—I’m outta here.”
But listen closely. Behind these youthful ultimatums is a plea: “Please, please tell me it’s true. True love is always worth dying for. Please tell me I’m worth dying for. Please tell me someone loves me this much—that God won’t let go, even if the Titanic sinks, even if the library explodes, even if the towers fall, even if the world ends. Please show me a God who loves me passionately—and who is worth loving passionately in return. Because if Jesus isn’t worth dying for, then he’s not worth living for either.”
The Heresy of Wholesomeness
Meanwhile, back in the church basement, youth groups play games like this:
Players crouch down and grab their ankles, remaining in this hunched position throughout the game. If they let go of their ankles, they’re eliminated. Participants hop around holding their ankles and moving their elbows (wings) like a bird. The goal is to knock over other players without losing their balance. If they’re knocked over, they’re eliminated. The last person “standing” is the winner. . . . This is a fun game to watch as well as to play.5
This game appeared in a youth ministry magazine I received the week of September 11, 2001—the week that made every silly game we had ever played in the name of youth ministry look laughably out of touch. Even gifted teachers—the ones who can root metaphors out of silly games like truffles, evoking an intuitive grasp of a larger truth—tread a fine line between the trite and true in youth ministry. Fun is good; triviality is deadly. The word “fun” originates in the word “fool”—but, for Christians, this means rejoicing in the “foolishness” of a God (I Corinthians 1:25) who took human form, lived as a poor man, and died as a criminal—and then, with the wink that saved the world, rose again, vanquishing death forever.
It’s a far cry from “Sparrow Flight.” No wonder intense interest in spirituality fails to translate into a vibrant church life for most adolescents. In Protestant traditions that practice confirmation, more than half of those confirmed as adolescents leave the church by age 17. Girls tend to exit congregational life around 14 or 15, boys somewhat sooner. Today, about half of North American adolescents say they attend religious services weekly. (Only two in five adults say the same.) Some denominations flatly cite their “inability to retain young people” as a chief factor in their decline. Meanwhile, youth pastors practice disappearing acts of their own. Over one-third of full-time youth ministers stay in ministry one year or less.
By now, the adolescent exodus from churches across a broad theological spectrum has become normative in American church life. We scatter blame on everything from budget cuts to training deficits to demographic cycles, yet beneath these issues lies a more disturbing question, the question of theological credibility: Does the church placate adolescents with pizza and youth groups, or do we offer a God worthy of their passion, a God who satisfies their deepest longings and delivers them from their most profound dreads? Does the church anesthetize young people (and their parents) with wholesome activities, or do we challenge them to a holy ministry? Can any of us tell the difference?
Complicating Factors in Contemporary Youth Ministry
Two issues exacerbate the tendency to focus youth ministry on psychology or sociology rather than on theology. The first is the blurry nature of adolescence itself. Whereas postwar America invented the term “teenager” to designate semi-grownups who, as columnist Walter Kirn put it, live “in a developmental buffer zone somewhere between childish innocence and adult experience,” adolescence today extends significantly beyond these parameters. Social scientists traditionally demarcate adolescence as the period between the onset of puberty and financial independence—that is, until the Internet made millionaires out of teenage day-traders and business prodigies who proved that financial independence and maturity possess no inherent link. Outside the U.S., the term “youth” commonly applies to anyone under thirty; in some cultures, the term applies to all unmarried persons, regardless of age. In 2003, the National Opinion Research Center reported that most Americans believe that the average age at which one becomes fully adult is 26. Meanwhile, the age of menarche in girls continues to plummet. In a 1997 Pediatrics study, the average age was 9.7 for Caucasian girls, and 8.1 for African-American girls. Most of these girls are in third grade.
With this prolonged adolescence—which now comes in three stages: early, middle, and late—came a broadened role for youth ministry. Campus and young adult ministries, for example, now fall under the adolescent rubric, as do “tween” ministries (for older elementary school students, 10 and 11 years old). As churches now address issues related to identity formation later and later in the life cycle, they can no longer afford to exile young people to one corner (usually the basement) of the congregation. In short, prolonged adolescence requires a more nuanced—and more intentionally and theologically trained—ministry with young people, since “adolescence” so defined now constitutes a substantial portion of the congregation with pastoral needs.
A further hurdle is learning to navigate the shifting sands of cultur
e, as the tectonic plates of modernity give way to a postmodern landscape. Young people have always served as barometers of the human condition, “acting out,” acutely, what it means to be human in their particular moment in history. As one educator put it, there are no so-called “youth problems” that are not, in fact, human problems found among all age groups, “now come to roost among the young.” As a result, the signature assumptions of global culture—radical pluralism, a heightened awareness of risk, and a view of life as a journey in which the self is continually “under construction”—are writ large across the experience of contemporary youth. As one young person told me, “Adolescence is, like, you know, the human condition on steroids.”
At the same time, the human condition confronting postmodern teenagers rests on different assumptions than it did 50 years ago. Postmodern young people tend to value casual relationships over programs, communities over institutions, mystery and fluidity more than certainty, particularity over universality, and personal experience over external authority. While churches vary in the degree of their ability—or willingness—to acknowledge these changing assumptions, adolescents tend to view postmodernity as friendly to spiritual interests as the line between the sacred and profane becomes increasingly blurred.
Worshiping at the Church of Benign Positive Regard
What is at issue for youth ministry in this increasingly complex landscape is not conversion; young people convert as a matter of course, with or without the church. What is at stake is discernment: To what, or to whom, will adolescents be converted? The problem with youth ministry in a postmodern culture is that young people are inundated with opportunities to convert, but have few theological tools to discern among them. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela won passionate followers, but so did Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Clearly, adolescent passion can be co-opted by evil as well as won by God—and by any number of deities in between. Despite the grim statistics on church involvement, the results of a 1999 Gallup poll suggest that a staggering 95 percent of American adolescents believe in God—they just don’t believe God matters. According to the 2004 National Study of Youth and Religion, far from being hostile toward religion, these teenagers mirror to a high degree their parents’ attitudes toward faith, which the study characterized as “benign positive regard.”6
Perhaps that is the root of the problem. Parents pass on to their children their passions, not “benign positive regard.” In a world overwhelmed by choices, the smiling detachment of “benign positive regard” is understandable, but spiritually irresponsible. “Benign positive regard” provides the basis for neither identity nor faith. Erikson, for example, believed identity formation requires young people’s commitment to an “ideology,” a word Erikson used for a governing belief system that gives a meaningful framework to our disparate experience. The Church of “Benign Positive Regard,” on the other hand, is too timid to offer such a framework. It suggests assent rather than inspires commitment. As one teenager, extremely active in her Presbyterian youth group and a regular church attendee, told the interviewer for the National Study of Youth and Religion, “God is nice, but doesn’t really do anything.”
Replacing Positive Regard with Passion
Incredibly, in spite of our unenviable track record with teenagers, something often goes right in youth ministry, and legions of clergy, professional church staff, and Christian activists point to the encouraging presence of a youth minister during their teenage years as a decisive factor in their faith and vocational choices. Over time, this has proved significant. As these young people became adults they carried their youthful ecclesial imaginations with them. They did not simply imagine youth ministry, they imagined the church—and in so doing they subtly expanded the reach of youth ministry beyond teenagers themselves. By the late 20th century it had become evident that teenagers were capable of conceiving ministry in ways that extended far beyond the youth room. When young people gathered for worship and ministry with their peers, often in settings segregated from the congregation at large, they self-consciously “did church” differently than their elders. As a result, youth ministry consistently challenged dominant ecclesiologies in American Protestantism by embodying alternative images of the church.
For example, many visible leaders of today’s “alternative” congregations—where pastors intentionally refashion styles of worship, patterns of polity, and forms of nurture to attract baby boomers and their progeny—admit strong roots in youth ministry. A quick scan through their proliferating publications shows that, by and large, these leaders simply adapted their visions (and methods) of youth ministry to address the adults these youth inevitably became. A 1994 report to the Lilly Endowment conceded, “What has become clear . . . is that youth ministry is ultimately about something much more than youth ministry. . . . These [Christian youth] movements are redrawing the ecclesial map of the United States.”7 And they are redrawing it to include churches where young people like to worship.
A New Map for Youth Ministry
The effect of this new “ecclesial map” has yet to be evaluated. On the one hand, it promises a new sense of vocation for youth ministry, and a theological sense of direction as youth ministry becomes more than a platform for placating teenagers. Indeed, youth ministry’s great potential may lie in its ability to reimagine the church on behalf of the wider Christian community, in which God has called young people to play an irrepressible and irreplaceable part.
On the other hand, treating youth ministry as a laboratory for the future church has risks, not the least of which is hubris and the possibility that it promises more than it can deliver. Will adolescents be able to reimagine the church in ways that are any less jaded than adults? Or will youth ministry’s expanded vocation on behalf of the church lead to a loss of focus—an abandonment of the church’s mission with young people themselves, returning youth ministry to the “stepping stone” status it has so earnestly tried to shake? The verdict will be for another generation to decide. What we can ascertain is that youth ministry is no longer just about youth—for if the predicament of adolescents is intimately linked to the predicament of the church, then the transformation of one implies the transformation of both.
1. Cuyler Black, “Jesus, Britney and Thermodynamics,” Fellowship Magazine, June 2001, n.p. Black is a youth minister in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
2. Erik H. Erikson, Youth Identity and Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), 233.
3. David van Biema, “A Surge of Teen Spirit,” Time, May 31, 1999, 58. Cassie’s “yes” actually may have belonged to classmate Valeen Schnurr, who escaped the shootings alive. But all of this was quickly beside the point; adolescents themselves circulated “The Cassie Bernall story” by e-mail, making it urban myth within hours, long before the media (who were presumably busy checking sources) reported it.
4. Erik H. Erikson, Youth Identity and Crisis, 233.
5. Les Christie, “Hot Games,” Group (September 10, 2001), 27.
Let me detour long enough to insert a caveat to that last line: If a game is fun to watch as well as to play, the fun had better not depend on standing by and laughing at a few unwitting people made to look ridiculous. Every youth group is full of phantom members who came—and left—when they realized the group’s “fun” quotient depended on being laughed at. Most self-respect
ing teenagers observe these antics and ask themselves two questions we ought to ask as well: (1) If they made that person look ridiculous this week, will I be next? and (2) What does this have to do with Jesus?
6. The findings of this study are still tentative; the project will be reported in full by Christian Smith, principal investigator, in a book later this year.
7. Ronald White, “History of Youth Ministry Project” (unpublished mid-project report submitted to Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Indiana, August 20, 1994), 7.