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Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus
teen angst and adult anxiety
In our age everything has to be a 'problem.' Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.
Sanctity in such an age means, no doubt, traveling from the area of anxiety to the area in which there is no anxiety or perhaps it may mean learning,
from God, to be without anxiety in the midst of anxiety.
---THOMAS MERTON, THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE
I've really begun to understand what deeply spiritual people teenagers are. (Silly to have forgotten,
when I was one myself.) Even the scruffi est middle-
schooler is on a seriously beautiful, completely unique journey, as we all are, and have been, even when we were little kids. Understanding that has perhaps been the best fruit that contemplative prayer has yielded in my relationship with young people.
---MELISSA RANGE, POET, YOUTH MINISTRY VOLUNTEER,
OAKHURST BAPTIST CHURCH, DECATUR, GEORGIA
Teenagers make adults anxious. They just do. In fact, adult anxiety about teens may be the primary reason youth ministry exists.
Spot a cluster of unfamiliar young people laughing outside the church, and adults get suspicious. If these youth happen to paint their lips black or jump skateboards off the church steps, adults can get downright fearful. Adult anxiety toward teens is ancient, even biblical. In the only scene we're given from Jesus' adolescence, the young Messiah sneaks away from his family and hides out in Jerusalem.
When his mother fi nally rushes into the temple and discovers her holy middle-schooler, she cries frantically, 'Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!' (Luke 2:48). It turns out that even the teenage Prince of Peace can make adults crazy with worry.
There are many reasons why adults feel anxious around teens.
Young people are fi dgety. They fi ddle with things and won't stay still. They exaggerate and mirror adult postures that make us selfconscious and uncomfortable. They always seem to be looking for something---a friend, an adventure, a ride, food, acceptance, a glimpse of who they're becoming. Youth can voice their questions with such open-hearted honesty that we fi nd ourselves blushing. Sometimes their neediness or suffering can be obvious in a way that leaves us feeling helpless or despondent.
Young people are green. They can make adults feel tired, musty,
and unattractive. Emerging from childhood, teens move toward adulthood with fresh eyes and energy. They see white elephants. They ask the obvious and un-faced questions: 'Why do we have to go to church when Jesus never did?' 'How come you tell me not to drink alcohol when you have a beer every night?' 'Why are these benches called pews?' Just the presence of young people within a community of adults exposes weaknesses, raises doubts, and challenges assumed values.
]Young people can be disturbingly (or is it refreshingly?) unpredictable.
One day they seem happy to conform to their parents' wishes and adult conventions; the next day it appears they're making it up as they go along, led zigzag by an internal drummer that even they don't seem to recognize. Young people can express a childlike dependency one moment, then get offended by the lack of independence they're granted the next. Youth are messy. Take this example:
Three years ago while traveling on a bus full of young people, I
noticed I was seated near fi ve or six teenage girls. At the time, my wife and I were expecting our fi rst daughter, and I was eager to learn about the relationships between these teenage girls and their fathers.
I asked the girls if they would be willing to tell me about their relationships with their fathers and to offer any advice they thought helpful.
Although these young women were from all over North America and represented diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, I was surprised at how all the girls in this particular group spoke in very similar, adoring tones about their dads. Then one 15-year-old said, 'Of course, you have to be prepared for times when your daughter might say to you, 'I
hate you, Daddy!' But usually by the next day you'll get a handmade card that says something like, 'You're the greatest dad in the world.''
Bewildered, I looked at her and asked if any of them had enacted this kind of behavior with their own fathers. All but one nodded in agreement. I was incredulous. I asked what had prompted them to use such extreme language. One girl replied, 'Well, it can be anything,
really. Like, a couple of months ago I stopped talking to my dad after he wore black socks and sandals to pick me up from school. But other times I've said similar things for really no reason at all.' When I asked them why, they just shrugged their shoulders. 'It's just something we do,' one of them offered. Youth make adults anxious.
One thing that becomes increasingly disturbing for many grownups is the sense that they have little control over young people. This scares adults. Adults want youth to conform to adult standards. They want kids to act responsibly. They want them to sit down and listen.
They want them to hurry up and get their identities fi xed and grounded. Adults want youth to have a roadmap for a secure and reasonable future, and they get rattled when they notice that most youth aren't carrying one.
Youth workers aren't immune from these anxieties. We worry about the young people in our care. We don't know what they look at on the Internet. We can't keep up with the electronic gadgets they play with. We've never heard of the bands or celebrities they talk about. We don't know what they do after school. We're unaware of the subject or codes in their e-mail conversations. Even the most hip youth ministers can sometimes feel like they really don't understand young people at all.
Perhaps one source of these adult anxieties is the growing separation between youth and adults. For the past 40 years, economic policies, changes in social norms, and a relentless marketing strategy to create and sell to a teenage market have combined to create what sociologist Christian Smith calls a 'structural disconnect' between adults and youth.4 This separation begins long before adolescence.
Many youth spend most of their childhoods segregated in daycares and schools, afternoons and evenings in front of televisions and computers, weekends hanging out with friends. By early adolescence most young people are attuned to a different reality, a different world,
The less contact adults have with young people, the more mysterious they seem. Adults can fall into the traps of projection, speculation,
worry, and fearful imaginings. Congregations and church leaders fi nd themselves relying on the media to learn about kids. They absorb stories about teenage gangs and violence. They watch videos and movies that portray youth as hormone-driven, sex-crazed nymphs. They hear news stories and government reports that talk alarmingly about
'at-risk' kids. All of this becomes a fi lter for how young people are
4 Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005), 182.
teen angst and adult anxiety perceived. Adults see teenagers in baggy jeans and oversized jackets and fear they're hiding drugs or weapons. They see a group of young women in short halter tops and lipstick and worry about their sexual activity.