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It is time for us to reject the wholesale cynicism of our culture regarding adolescence. Rather than years of undirected and unproductive struggle, these are years of unprecedented opportunity ... These are the years of penetrating questions, the years of wonderful discussions never before possible. These are the years of failure and struggle that put the teen's true heart on the table. These are the years of daily ministry and of great opportunity. -PAUL DAVID TRIPP IN AGE OF OPPORTUNITY
When I got to the point where I had been given all I could humanly handle, I never once doubted that God in his grace would give me all I needed to continue on and handle whatever was to come. -MOTHER OF A TEENAGE SON LOCKED IN THE STRUGGLES OF ADOLESCENCE
It's a commonly held notion that raising or ministering to teenagers is always difficult. I'm here to tell you that for me, it's been an incredible ride marked by some amazing ups and a few challenging downs. I spent the first 16 years of my adult life working with teenagers in a variety of youth ministry positions. I've spent the last 17 years studying teenagers, their lives, and their culture. In the midst of all that, I've spent 23 years raising four kids of my own. Three have already passed through their teenage years. One's still smack dab in the midst of adolescence.
For the most part, my incredible ride's been marked by amazing sights and scenery that have put a big smile on my face. Teenagers are lots of fun, and mine have brought great joy to my heart. But there have been some periods during my journey-periods that have coincided with my own kids' adolescent years-that have been quite bumpy. When I look in the rearview mirror and see the years that have flown by far too quickly, I see there have been times when I've missed a turn, fallen asleep at the wheel, or even wrecked altogether. There have been times when my kids have done the same. But through it all and by the grace of God, I've never once regretted the ride or wished I'd never set out on the journey in the first place. Whether you're a parent of or someone working with teenagers, I hope that when all is said and done, it's the same for you.
But let's face the truth: We're adults; they're teenagers. Although we may share a roof and DNA, a cultural-generational gap will exist. And if adults don't make an effort to love teenagers by working to close that gap, it will only continue to widen. What should parents do when they experience the highs and lows of parenting in a rapidly changing world? What should youth workers and others in relationships with teenagers do to close the gap and become more effective at fulfilling their unique callings? How can we avoid being overwhelmed by the normal feelings of confusion, frustration, and misunderstanding that go with the teenage years? Is there anything constant we can grasp? Yes, there is.
Finding Your Way Through the Maze of Their Adolescence
Our search and experience has yielded some distinct patterns and approaches consistently present when parents and youth workers and the teenagers they love have worked together well to find their way through the maze of contemporary adolescence. As you read through the remainder of this book, I trust you'll understand even more the unique pressures, problems, choices, and issues facing our teenagers in today's fast-paced and rapidly changing world. In order to be prepared to respond to these issues in a hope-filled, positive, compassionate, and productive manner, it's important that you understand and embrace several truths for yourself and your family and your youth ministry. I know from experience that if you take them to heart, they can radically transform your life and the way you approach the valuable years you spend with your kids.
Kids Are God's Gifts to Us
Our widespread cultural cynicism regarding teenagers and these exciting years of their lives is unjustified and must cease. The psalmist writes, "Don't you see that kids are God's best gift? The fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior's fistful of arrows are the kids of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of kids!" (Psalm 127:3-5, The Message). It's a big mistake to think of kids as liabilities; they're rewards from God, given to us as a sign of God's favor. Because God values them so highly, so must we. They're not inconveniences or nuisances-whether they're in your home or in your youth room. Even during difficult times, the kids God's given me as gifts remain gifts.
No One Ever Said It'd Be Easy
I learned a shocking lesson shortly after Caitlin's birth, and I've been relearning it ever since. No matter how much time and effort I put into preparing for parenthood, there will always be surprises. Some of those surprises can seem paralyzing. Raising and relating to kids is difficult for everyone, and it tends to become more so as kids reach the teenage years. The situation grows more complex for parents who raise more than one child since each child brings a unique personality and set of experiences.
Each of us will experience highs and lows, jolts and joys, thrills and spills. If you're struggling as a parent, rest assured you're not alone. I've made efforts, but I've also made mistakes, struggled with feelings of inadequacy, and grappled with rebellion in my kids. I've known sickening dread, sleepless nights, rage, bitterness, frustration, shame, futile hopes being shattered, and the battle between tenderness and contempt. (If you're a youth worker, you know a bit about this, too!)
If you've raised a teenager and been totally spared all of these experiences, it's only by the grace of God. The reality is that it's not easy. But we can approach our parenting as a glorious challenge and opportunity. Dr. Paul Tripp reminds us that "the teenage years are often cataclysmic years of conflict, struggle, and grief. They are years of new temptations, of trial and testing. Yet these very struggles, conflicts, trials and tests are what produce such wonderful parental opportunities."
There Are No Perfect Kids ... or Parents ... or Youth Workers
The root of problems in our families and homes and youth ministries is the sinful, selfish nature of kids and adults. It can be difficult to coexist peacefully. Parents must strive to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids. But it's unrealistic to expect perfect kids and perfect families. To embrace such expectations only burdens parents and their kids with never "measuring up."
We must never forget that we're all imperfect, finite beings touched by sin and incapable of perfection-not with our parenting, our ministries, or our homes.
The World Is More Than Happy to Raise Our Kids for Us
In recent years, adolescents have had fewer opportunities for times of interaction and communication with their parents and other adults. Many families have experienced divorce; and in those families where Mom and Dad still live together, members get busier all the time thanks to schedules full of meetings, activities, clubs, and sports. The other extreme is also occurring in a growing number of families, where members may all be at home in the evenings, but everyone retreats to the "aloneness" of their own rooms to interact "solo" with the TV, computer, or any number of media outlets that fill their personal spaces.
All of these factors keep families from eating together on a regular basis, and these realities have certainly contributed to the fact that when teenagers need advice, they're more likely to turn first to a friend (55 percent), followed by Mom (44 percent), a boyfriend or girlfriend (23 percent), and then Dad (20 percent). When push comes to shove, American dads and moms are devoting less time to bringing up their sons and daughters, thereby allowing someone or something else to raise their kids for them.
As a result of his research on the lives of mid-adolescents (ages 14 to 18), Chap Clark concludes "many if not most mid-adolescents have been set adrift by parental and familial authorities, and they are operating as if they are on their own." This sad reality has been developing for years. Back in the early 1990s, I attended a presentation on a new reading program at our local elementary school. While I applauded our school district's efforts in teaching kids to read, I was concerned about the social problems it cited for the existence of the program known as HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills). The goal of HOTS is to help kids who consistently fall behind at school learn how to think for themselves through the use of computers and "controlled floundering." Dr. Stanley Pogrow, the founder, explains: "Traditionally, we learn to think by sitting around the table, being questioned by parents, and talking as a family. Today, who has time for sit-down meals? Yet, this critical stage of development cannot be bypassed ... So what is the solution? ... Bring dinner table conversation to school. That's what HOTS does!"
Sadly, the HOTS program exists to fill a void left by parents who no longer see the importance of spending time together as a family. When parents give up these responsibilities, no matter what the age(s) of their kids, others-by default-take over. In today's rapidly changing youth culture, we hand over the parenting reins to a variety of institutions, including the school, church, media, advertising, coaches, and so on. Sure, some of these institutions are well intentioned and they really do care for kids. But they can never replace the role parents must play in the lives of their teenagers.
In the same way God gives parents the gift of kids, he gives kids the gift of parents who will love and nurture them. Scripture clearly states that parents are to exercise their parental responsibilities by spending time with their kids, and that includes teaching them God's will and way (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Raising teenagers requires a diligent and unwavering investment of all our resources. And lest parents should fall into the trap of thinking teenagers don't want their investment of time, guidance, and direction-they should think again. Teenagers can be viewed as distinct lumps of clay that God has entrusted us with, and he has an individual plan for each one. Like the lumps of clay spinning on a potter's wheel, no two start out alike. And by the time the potter is finished, each will become a unique cup, vase, plate, pot, or bowl.
I've had the privilege of watching my own four lumps of clay grow and take their unique shapes over the years. When they were little, I wondered what they'd end up like when all was said and done. Yet, in the midst of that wondering, I knew God had chosen my wife and me to be stewards of this sacred trust. As parents, we have the awesome task of cooperating with God to mold and shape those lumps under his guidance.
A potter is committed to shaping that lump of clay. If she makes a mistake, she reworks the clay, rather than giving up on it. What would happen to the clay if the potter decided she didn't want to work with it any more and suddenly threw it out the window? Its destiny would vary, depending on where it landed. It could land in the street and be run over, flattened and forgotten. It could land in the grass, only to be pounded and eroded by the elements. It could bake in the sun until all of its pliable properties disappeared. Dried and hardened, it could never be worked again. All too often, teenagers meet such fates due to parental neglect. It's as if they've been thrown out the window and left to whatever fate befalls them. I know this is true because I've met far too many of these abandoned lumps of clay over the years.
But when the potter keeps the clay in her hands, working and reworking it with tender care, it eventually turns into a beautiful and unique piece of pottery. So it should be with our kids. They must grow up knowing Mom and Dad are loving, hands-on kind of people who eagerly fulfill their God-given responsibilities to raise their kids.
Any Kid, Anywhere, Anytime
During a youth culture seminar I was leading a few years back, I made an effort to help parents and youth workers see that a variety of factors combine in our world to make the voice of the culture far more compelling and attractive to kids. I told them it doesn't matter where they live, whom they live with, or what kind of school they go to. Any kid living anywhere can be influenced by the negative and dangerous aspects of our culture at any time. No church, school, family, or child is immune. To my surprise, many in the audience protested this message and refused to believe it was true.
In November 2005, a friend called me to ask what role, if any, the Center for Parent Youth Understanding was playing in the unfolding story of a double murder that had occurred on a quiet Sunday morning in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A local 18-year-old had allegedly shot and killed the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend. Then the pair took off to get married and start a new life, only to be caught a day later in Indiana. The story was loaded with the kind of dramatic twists and turns that make news producers and networks drool. They told the story over and over in typical soap opera fashion: a forbidden love affair, a double murder, a kidnapping, access to the kids through their online blogs, their "religious" backgrounds, a multistate manhunt, and their history as homeschooled kids. Nonstop news network coverage featured the "expert" pontificators speculating, as usual, in a manner that told the story long before the story was even known.
"We're not involved," I replied.
"Well, what do you think of it all?" he asked.
I answered, "Sad, but not surprising." I didn't know the families, nor did I know enough about their backgrounds to make comments on the tragedy. However, this situation and the specifics as we knew them prompted some thoughts that have continued to evolve as I study the Scriptures and observe our Christian subculture. For years we've been challenging Christian parents to stay in touch with teenagers and their world. To believe our faith somehow insulates them from the realities of the world is both pragmatically and theologically wrong. Like it or not, we live in the culture and that culture influences and affects us all. There's no escaping it. And there isn't supposed to be a way out. Like it or not, God doesn't want us circling the wagons or living in some kind of a bubble in an effort to keep ourselves pure. Jesus prayed the will of the Father the night before his death-that his disciples in all times and in all places would be in the world (living as salt and light) while not living as though they're of the world (John 17). That's not only how we should be living, but it's how we should be preparing our students to live every day of their lives.
Believe it or not, to assume you've somehow made kids immune to the influence of culture just by shielding them from culture might just produce the opposite effect. In other words, by not preparing them to engage the culture with minds and hearts saturated by a biblical world- and life view, we actually make them more vulnerable to the negative cultural forces they face both now and for the rest of their lives. Both we (parents and youth workers) and our kids need to be wise to the Scriptures and streetwise about our culture. Just like he did with his son Jesus, God has made us all particular types of people who do his particular work in the particular time and place where he's placed us.
Over the years I've been questioned by a growing number of pastors and youth workers who are dealing with a segment of Christians who resist this approach and even believe it's morally, ethically, and biblically wrong. Sorry, I don't see it. I feel even more sorry for their kids. I love what theologian John Stott says about every Christian's call to become a double-listener: "Christian witnesses stand between the Word and the world, with the consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word in order to discover ever more of the riches of Christ. And we listen to the world in order to discern which of Christ's riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light."
This is our calling as parents and youth workers, and, consequently, it's also the calling of our kids. When it comes to teenagers and their culture, what we don't know (or don't want to know or refuse to know) can hurt them.
They Long for God
Blaise Pascal described a universal hole in the soul as a God-shaped vacuum. Alister McGrath describes Pascal's model as "a God-shaped emptiness within us, which only God can fill. We may try to fill it in other ways and with other things. Yet one of the few certainties of life is that nothing in this world satisfies our longing for something that is ultimately beyond this world."
Excerpted from Youth Culture 101 by Walt Mueller Copyright © 2007 by Walt Mueller. Excerpted by permission.
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