Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Thursday, September 29, 2005

younger adults?

Here's a random thought I'll throw out in a hurried attempt at a real post:

For years I've heard people say that teenagers are having a harder and harder time making it through adolescence unscathed. Drugs, alcohol, gangs, sex, and stupidity is rampant. But when people say that I usually ask them, "What's different now?" Usually they say that the world is headed to hell in a handbasket and society is so much worse than it used to be. Ok, maybe. But do you notice any other difference? Yeah...our adolescents are being adolescents for longer than they were when you were a kid.

For someone who loves teens, I have a strange theory about how we could help our youth and cut down and drugs, violence, teenage pregnancy, etc. Make adolescence shorter. You see, we've always had teenagers (people who's age ends in -teen), but the concept of adolescence is very, very new. It began with the invention of public schools and then secondary school and the expectation of college (now grad school is almost expected). Sure those are good things, but they also delay the beginning of a true life journey for years. That period becomes some weird stasis period where learning is expected but not much else. My grandfather used to tell me the story of finishing the eighth grade. He asked his father if he could go on to high school and my great-grandfather replied to his 13 year old son: "Don't be stupid. Get to work." According to today's values that sounds pretty cruel, almost abusive, but my grandfather did as he was told, learned the farm trade, got married at 17, raised 9 wonderful children who bless me to this day, and lived to be 90, all without ever doing drugs, taking a single drink, joining a gang, or having extra-marital sex. Of course, the purpose of the gospel is bigger than just keeping kids from getting involved in substance abuse and sex, but maybe we can agree that since those things are truly harming our society, that a downturn in those behaviors would be helpful, both on a individual and societal level.

Currently, sociologists have a hard time defining when adolescence actually ends. Some say they believe for some individuals adolescence can last into the early 30's, and most will tell you that adolescence rarely ends before the early 20's when we actually allow people to get on with their life. Even the government doesn't know - you can vote and be drafted and be the subject of a lawsuit at 18, but you can't have a beer until 21. Conversely, if you commit a heinous enough crime at the age of 15, the government will confer upon you the honor of being tried as an adult. Businesses are equally confused: Insurance companies don't consider you an adult until your mid twenties, you can't rent a car until 25, although a 21 year old can rent a U-haul if they need to drive somewhere. But one thing people are pretty unified about is that the adolescent years are intimidating, difficult, and frought with danger for those who make poor choices about their mature bodies using their immature minds.

STD's and pregnancy are rampant among young people. Between 80% and 90% of the teens you know will have had sex before they graduate high school. 30% of those will have contracted some sort of STD. More than 10% of the sexually active girls will have had abortions. But when we crunch some more numbers another interesting trend comes to light. At what age do most people reach sexual adulthood (i.e. able to procreate)? Normally by the age of 13. At what age do most people get married? The national average is 26. Do we really expect people shut down their sexuality for more than a decade until the culture says they are grown up and ready for marriage? A personal commitment to holiness is important, and of course in Christ it can be and has been done, but societally, should we really be surprised? Something has changed.

I often hear ministers urge teenagers not to be afraid to get involved in ministry, not to consider themselves too young to throw themselves into something significant, and they usually back up this plea by saying, "Remember, Mary was just a young teenager when God used her to give birth to Jesus." Well...yes, but that's an anachronism because that was the age that girls were socialized to become wives and mothers and to run a household. We can't really help it, but it's unfair to picture a 1st century 13 year old as an unsure, nervous, incapable kid who's still searching for herself. People at that time were prepared to launch into their own lives at an earlier age. I can't shake the notion that system is somehow unjust, that maybe it's the result of the sexual preferences of a chauvinistic society, but then again, our system isn't exactly producing happier, healthier young people.

So what would happen if we began to socialize teenagers more quickly? Would it help? I don't know, but maybe. Giving people purpose can revolutionize their life. Shortening adolescence would give Madison Avenue a smaller target and might cause them to pick another demographic to terrorize and ruin. It would lead to maturity in a time when immaturity is idolized. But we would really have to change the entire way we socialize our children; cosmetic change would likely do more harm than good. Remember, if this is indeed a problem, it is a systemic one; it is not the fault of individual parents and it is not to be solved by pushing your kids to get married young. I got married at 20, and my wife had just turned 19. We are glad we did, but we've had to admit that our marriage has been a journey not only of growing closer together, but also of growing up. I don't know all the answers, but I'm sure of the fact that our society has failed our young people (don't believe it? Read Chap Clark's Hurt), and that something needs to be done.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Last night some close friends who read my blog asked if I was regretting getting out of youth ministry since I was blogging about those days with some nostalgia. The answer is "not at all", although I don't regret my youth ministry days...in fact I was grown and blessed and nurtured and matured by it. I'm proud of having spent a short time in what I consider to be an incredibly special and needed and difficult profession. I'm no longer a YM because I feel God called me to another place, not because it was a bad place to be. I will always have a special place in my heart for youth ministry and youth ministers.

Besides the teens themselves, what I clearly miss most about youth ministry is the freedom and creativity that it allowed and expected. This is a way in which all ministry needs to be like youth ministry. Then, if I had tried to do the same thing, worship in the same way every time we met, there would have been a revolt. So I was challenged to make every meeting meaningful and full of life and God. I'm not trying to make a case for consumer Christianity, where we feed people only what they ask for in order to secure their presence in our assembly in the future, what I'm saying is that teenagers' natural desire for variety, for their faith to be a journey of adventure and wonder is much more healthy than many adults' tendency to want their church experience to be static and comfortable and routine, to avoid challenges and conflict. I remember being challenged every week to plan worship that would be powerful and meaningful and relevant to us TODAY, never having to rely on a formula, always approaching God in a fresh way. And the next week, in our new context, new situation, we could worship and study in a way that was appropriate to us again, even if we were in a totally different place spiritually. Was it a lot more work than preparing for worship in my current church? Sure...it was more work than preparing a good sermon. But it was vibrant and rewarding and real.

I'm constantly amazed how few churches understand the power of atmosphere. By that I mean that you can totally enhance worship by putting some effort and thought into setting up your worship space. It blows my mind when I hear church leaders wonder why people come into their church's dimly lit auditorium/sanctuary and don't speak to each other or interact much. Because it's lit like a tavern in there! You feel like you should be sitting in a corner with a pitcher of beer and a pack of cigarettes, listening to a bad lounge singer croon "Muskrat Love." The first, most simple rule of atmosphere is that the brighter and friendlier a room is, the more people will chat and interact. The dimmer the room, people tend to be more calm and reserved. If my youth group was becoming too talkative to pay attention, I'd always turn out the lights and keep going. I love to play with lighting. My favorite thing about my youth room when I was a YM was that it went TOTALLY dark without lights. I even covered the exit signs. I could speak by candlelight, we journaled by candlelight, we prayed in the dark, then flip on the blinding flourescent lights when it came time to discuss. I caused a stir once because in preparation for a youth event, I blacked out all 30 stained glass windows in my church's auditorium and hung heavy blankets over the doors so that I could have hundreds of teenagers praising God un-selfconsciously (although you'd be surprised how much light is generated by a video screen even with a black background and a gray font). But that darkness helped draw them in and actually engage.

If you have an awkward kind of meeting area and people have a hard time focusing on the speaker, turn the lights out on them and put a spotlight on him. Sometimes it's better to take the spotlight off the speaker to emphasize the words. I've preached on poverty or the sick and destitute by putting a continuous series of powerful pictures on a screen while I sat down where no one could see me and preached softly over the speaker system. Very powerful.

Seating plays a role. Pews tend to keep people buttoned up, chairs are less formal. In my old youth room, depending on the mood I wanted to convey, we'd sometimes sit in chairs, sometimes in couches and beanbags and sometimes on the floor. It makes a difference whether people are seated in neat rows so that they only see the backs of other peoples' heads, or if they are seated in a circle where they can see each other.

What if we could even leave the church building sometimes to worship? Easter sunrise services are a good example of this. Once when I was teaching my youth group about poverty and having a heart for the poor, instead of ordering pizza for our youth meeting like usual I gave them bags of groceries just like our church gave poor families and made them cook their own meal with the crappy generic non-perishable food we gave to people who came to us for help (my policy: if you don't eat it, don't donate copious quantities of it to a food pantry). Then we gathered outside our building in the alley around a dumpster and worshipped while facing the reality of life in that neighborhood - people living in garages, in shacks with dirt floors, drugs houses, screaming children, trash covering the yards. Then we talked about how poor we are all when we approach God. I miss that kind of freedom and creativity and I think it would be helpful for the rest of the church, not just youth ministries.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I like youth ministry and I love youth ministers. The reason I'm no longer in youth ministry has nothing to do with disliking the job, or being bad at it. It's more of a complicated mix of a bad experience, timing, the fact that some of my strengths lie in a different direction, geography, and the sad reality that I make a much better living preaching for a small church than I ever did being youth minister for a bigger one. And the toll on my wife was pretty large. Youth ministry is no longer an option for her, although I don't know if she'd tell you preaching is any easier for her.

The two biggest reasons people go into youth ministry is because of a passion for the hearts of young people and because of the sheer fun of it all. Both of those things are great, but only one will sustain YM's for more than a year or two. Once the reality of the ministry sets in, it becomes impossible for some people to do. For example, I went to college and sat in an introduction to ministry class full of nearly 70 young people who had signed up to major in youth ministry. Four years later, after classes and internships had exposed us to ministry reality, I think four of us graduated with YM degrees. Several years after that, only one of the four is still in youth ministry. Not a good testimony to how we treat our YMs.

But for those who remain longer than I did, even with all the hard things, the fun persists and will always be one of the redeeming qualities of youth ministry. The times when you actually get to spend time with and minister to teenagers...that's nice.

When I started in youth ministry, the "youth room" I was given was terrible. Small, ugly, noisy, inaccessable, a terrible classroom for anybody. I immediately began lobbying for a new one, which we eventually got. But very nearly the only redeeming quality I noticed about the old room was that it was very very close to the inner dimensions of the OT tabernacle (I don't remember how I realized that). So during a study of the Pentateuch, lingering over the stories of the OT, trying to do some creative things to bring to life the existence of ancient people, I decided to recreate the interior of the tabernacle so we could actually try worshipping as the Hebrews were commanded. So I got a bunch of materials, and we went to work. Then I decided to have some fun and put the teens in groups, each with the assigned task of building one of the articles or furnishings of the tabernacle just by reading the instructions given to them in the text.

Someone built an alter, someone built a table, another group built the ark of the covenant. It was interesting and fun and we got some truly strange looking furniture out of the deal. But the two girls I asked to make a "golden lampstand" were having trouble. Understandably, they were having trouble putting the words into a picture, much less an actual lampstand. I tried to help them, but they just got frustrated, so I asked if they'd like to work from a picture of what they were trying to make instead. They agreed, so I went and got a Bible encyclopedia and showed them an artist's rendering of the "the lampstand." One girl took a glance at the picture and glared at me. "That's a Menorah. What? Do these people think they are Jewish or something?"

Sometimes I think I'm such a good teacher...until reality sets it. :-)