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Contemplative Youth MinistryPracticing the Presence of Jesus
By Mark Yaconelli
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 Mark Yaconelli
All right reserved.
Chapter Oneteen 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 scruffiest 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 thechurch, 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 finally 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 fidgety. They fiddle with things and won't stay still. They exaggerate and mirror adult postures that make us self-conscious 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 find 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 five or six teenage girls. At the time, my wife and I were expecting our first 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 fixed 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. 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, than adults.
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 find 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 filter for how young people are 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.
Sadly, most adults are unable to see the truth-that drug use and sexual promiscuity among youth have continually decreased over the past 20 years. So much so that Bill Strauss, co-author with Neil Howe of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation claims, "Never before has there been a generation that is less violent, less vulgar, less sexually charged than the culture being offered them." We fail to recognize it's the adult culture that is far more "at-risk" than the youth culture. Strauss claims, "We need a youth committee on adult drug abuse, not the other way around." But many of us believe the story the media and culture tell us about youth. We don't take the time to get to know our youth as they really are. Instead we view them through the media lens. We see them not as our children, or even as people; we see them as a dangerous tribe, a marauding cluster of "at-risk" statistics evoking fear and apprehension.
Sometimes adult fears about youth arise from what we do know. Adults get scared when young people reflect behaviors and attitudes we recognize. Adolescent desires for pleasure, material goods, entertainment gadgets, constant activity, sex, and mood-altering substances all mirror the behavior of the adult culture-and it scares us. There is much we adults don't like about ourselves. There are mistakes parents have made and want their kids to avoid. We get frightened when youth begin to reflect the ambiguous values and conduct of the adult culture.
I remember the mother of a teenager in my church youth group who was terrified her daughter was going to start smoking. She brought her daughter to church hoping she would get involved with "good" kids and healthy activities. This mom questioned me obsessively after every retreat and camp event to see if her daughter had been smoking. The reason she was scared? She had started smoking in high school and even as an adult was unable to stop the habit. Often the things we adults fear most in our youth are the issues we haven't resolved in ourselves. Thomas Hines, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, writes that we fear youth because "we want them to grow into healthier, wealthier, and wiser versions of ourselves." When they don't appear to be on that path, adults get scared.
Maybe what's most unsettling about youth is the way in which they remind many of us of our own adolescent hearts. Young people can stir up forgotten dreams and evoke unmet longings within adults. They can unearth the contradictions between the hopeful vision of our younger selves and the mediocre and muddled reality of our adult lives. Whatever the particular cause, the truth is that when adults relate to teenagers out of anxiety we miss seeing them, we miss hearing them, and we lose our sense of compassion for them.
Anxiety is the inability to be present. It's a state of agitation in which we lose our larger capacity to empathize, to love, to respond to the needs of others. When we're anxious we become squirrel-like -nervous and wary, teeth chattering, eyes scanning for danger, muscles spring-loaded, waiting to scamper up the nearest tree at every sound. Anxiety comes from words that denote "to choke." When we're anxious we can't breathe. We feel life closing in, leaving fewer and fewer choices. We find ourselves unable to discern real fears from reactive worry. We lose patience, and we're unable to trust. We get suspicious, distancing ourselves from others, ourselves, and even God. We become lost in our heads, caught up in fearful thoughts and calculations. Our minds oscillate between the future and the past. We worry about what should have happened or fear what might take place. In anxiety we lose touch with what's driving us. Our actions become self-protective, reactive, and compulsive.
It would be an overstatement to say that anxiety is the only adult response to young people. There are many instances when a young person's presence can be an unexpected grace that lifts a grown-up's spirit like a sudden gift of flowers. Youth can be unabashedly friendly and welcoming in a way that wipes away the clouds of mistrust or dourness many adults live behind. Youth are often playful, drawing energy and new life to the surface of adult lives and communities. Young people can be passionate about God and ultimate meaning in a way that elevates or even carries the faith of those around them. They can embody a heartfelt compassion for suffering and marginalized people that is revelatory to adults. They can ask the hard questions that help adult communities see hidden problems or possibilities.
There are many more positive ways, not to mention ordinary ways, in which adults respond and relate to young people. Yet the primary reaction to teens within Christian communities and the culture at large seems to be anxiety.
As a result most youth ministries in North America are ministries of anxiety. In fact, most Christian communities don't even consider the spiritual needs of young people until there's a critical mass of anxious adults. Look behind most youth ministry programs and you'll find pastors and church boards nervous about declining memberships, parents afraid their kids lack morals, congregations worried the Christian faith has become irrelevant to younger generations, and the persistent frustration among adults that something ("anything!") needs to be done with "those kids!"
Of course, adults aren't the only ones with anxieties. Perhaps the second most common reason youth ministries exist is that teenagers have their own anxieties about adults. Adults make teenagers anxious. They just do.
I once asked a group of graduating high school students to give me their impressions of adulthood. For the next hour kids shared their observations and experiences with parents, teachers, and various adults in the community. As the discussion began to wind down, I handed out paper and pencils and asked the kids to craft a one-sentence definition of adulthood based on our discussion. The room was silent for a minute or two, as the youth wrote and reflected on what they had heard. I then asked the young people to share what they had written. The first young man to respond said, "Well, as I heard our conversation and thought about my own experiences with adults, I wrote this definition: 'Adults have no friends, adults have no passions, and adults are stressed out.'"
Adults have no friends, adults have no passions, and adults are stressed out. In a single sentence, this young person was able to articulate the fear I have felt among most young people during my 15 years of youth ministry. More and more it appears to me that this definition represents the nightmare of adulthood most young people are trying to escape. Is it any wonder there are 30-year-olds still living in their parents' house, still trying to make it in a rock band? Maybe they're trying to hang on to their friends. Maybe they're trying to keep their passions alive. Maybe they see the grey-suited adults working in cubicles, burdened with responsibility, and they get frightened.
Young people are about energy. They have bodies that want to move, they have emotions they want to express, and they have developing relationships that are incredibly interesting and important to them. Adults-especially in a faith community-are about status quo. They want young people to listen, to behave, to be still, to stop talking, to soothe adult fears, to fulfill mission statements, and to support programs. This makes young people wary and anxious.
I once interviewed for a youth ministry position at a church in which part of the interview was done by a group of young people. When I asked what kind of youth ministry they envisioned, they said things like, "Something that's not boring." "Lots of trips and retreats." "We want to be able to hang out with friends." "Lessons about real stuff we care about-not just what adults care about."
As they continued to talk, I sensed that their comments were rooted in their fears about the church.
Fear that the church wants youth to be passive. Fear that youth programs will be about meeting the needs of the adults. Fear that the real purpose of youth ministry is to make youth "nice." Fear that the youth ministry will be a form of babysitting. Fear that there will be only talking and no action. Fear that the ministry will be another activity in which youth have no voice. Fear that the ministry will have nothing to do with real life. Fear that they will have to hide their real thoughts, fears, desires, and experiences. Fear that youth will become as muted, controlled, and stressed as the adults in the congregation. Fear that there is something in Christianity that really matters, yet it will remain hidden.
The anxieties and fears young people hold regarding adults and churches are real. Yet ministries that respond only to teenage anxiety will mimic the media's frenetic activity that seeks only to keep the attention of young people, without any concern for the growing hunger of the adolescent soul.
Excerpted from Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli Copyright ©2006 by Mark Yaconelli. Excerpted by permission.
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