This past weekend, our church hosted teenagers from all around our area for a time of worship, food, games, and sharing in our faith together. It was what we used to call a “youth rally” when I was a teenager, though I think that term has sort of gone the way of VHS, pay phones, and writing checks. We call it Connection Point around here, but the idea is the same as it was in the 1980’s — getting teenagers together so that they know that there are other people their age who take their faith seriously. And who also wrestle with that same faith.
Let me say up front, I’m not cool. Not in the least. (Not that anyone who knew me for more than a minute or so would ever be in any doubt about that.) Definitely not to teenagers. I’m 55, a minister, a dad; I’m a lot of things, but cool isn’t one of them. I haven’t studied teen/young adult culture as anything more than an interested outside observer. So I’m in no way an expert on anything I’m about to try to write about. Everything I’m going to say comes from my own experience and reflection.
Primarily, that experience comes down to this: for quite a few years now, teenagers have tolerated my presence. I’ve enjoyed reading the Bible with them, looking forward to what they’re going to ask and what they’re going to say about Scripture when they feel like it’s safe. I’m grateful that most weeks I get to talk to them about their lives, pray with them about what they want to lift up to God, and encourage them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. I don’t think I usually have much to say that helps them — but I think sometimes I do. And sometimes, I think, just my willingness to listen gives them a chance to talk through something, to articulate it, to develop their vocabulary and their capacity to name whatever might happening in their lives, take ownership of it, confront their fears about it, and maybe know that God cares about it as much as they do.
Every now and again, one of them will talk about something big with me. Those moments have been some of the most sacred of my life because they’ve trusted me enough to talk to me and pray with me about their most deeply-held and -felt truths.
So I want to say some things to the church about teenagers.
The first is this: You can’t expect them to listen if you don’t listen. And your listening has to come first. In that way, it’s like how we experience God’s grace. God offers grace before we know we need it and before we’re able to accept it. If you aren’t listening to teenagers, I promise you this — they are not listening to you.
Teenagers are used to being close-mouthed around adults. They feel like they have to be. On the one hand, they’re learning how to be their own people, independent of their parents and other adults in their lives. Sharing something feels like they’re betraying that process.
On the other hand, some of them have probably trusted adults, only to have it turn around and bite them. They’ve been disappointed, made to feel stupid, and even taken advantage of, perhaps, when they’ve been too open. Or they have friends who have. Once bitten, twice shy. So they’re careful.
And that means if they’re talking to you about anything, you take it seriously. You care about it as much as they do. Eventually, they might see you can be trusted and open up more. Maybe.
In our teen classes at church, we spend a lot of time just talking about what went on in their lives that week. We don’t always offer advice, not unless we’re asked. We just do what the Bible says; we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. And we pray, because God listens best of all. Even if we don’t get to what we were planning to talk about that morning. Because if you’re not listening to teenagers, they are not listening to you.
Second, and to put it bluntly: Teenagers have amazing b.s. detectors. They know if you’re not being real with them. The last thing they want is for me to try to identify too closely with them. There’s very little that’s more inauthentic and pathetic to a teenager than a 55-year-old guy trying to be like them. They are not unable to relate to someone older than them — if they want to. What they don’t want is an older person trying to pretend to be like them. Not to mention that whatever of theirs you try to embrace, you immediately make uncool.
That should flow both ways, incidentally. You don’t need to be them — and they don’t need to be you. They have the rest of their lives to be adults. Right now they’re in a difficult in-between time when they aren’t children, but haven’t completely found their place in adult society. They’re trying things. And if they sense that they’re not accepted as they are, they will disengage. Which is no different than the rest of us, really. Imagine if, every time you walked into church, you felt people were disappointed in you and disapproving of you. That’s exactly how many teenagers feel every Sunday.
Third, teenagers are capable of much more than you think they are. Our teens planned and carried out our Connection Point themselves. Sure, there were some adults who helped. But we worked for them. When decisions needed to be made, it was the teens who made them. They were in front of their peers, speaking to them about faith, reading Scripture, leading activities, skits, and games. They planned the menu. They made our guests feel welcome.
And because of that, it was theirs. They felt ownership of it. They felt pressure to put together something that would be meaningful to them, and they felt pride when they accomplished it.
Most churches need to trust their teenagers more. Give them something to do, help them see that it matters, and they’ll follow through. We never had to force them to work. We didn’t worry about whether or not they’d show up. This was their thing, and they took it seriously.
Fourth, teenagers deconstruct. It’s what they do. It’s what they need to do. They need to take apart what they’ve been asked to accept so they can see how it works, understand it, and decide if it’s going to be a part of them. And that includes the faith they’ve received. They need to decide if it’s going to be their faith. And how much of it. We need to give them space, while acting as guides.
It’s messy, this deconstruction. It’s disorienting, for them but maybe even more for adults who love them and are invested in their acceptance of the faith. We just have to remember that we deconstructed our parents’ faith, too. Things that mattered a lot to them did not to us. We jettisoned things that our parents hoped we’d keep. And things that they never saw as significant became for us non-negotiable. We need to remember that it’s not our job to keep them in the faith — that’s God’s work. He can be trusted.
Finally: our teenagers are paying attention to us. They’re watching when we traffic in conspiracy theories and distort truth. They’re listening to our cynical views of the world. They notice when we ignore science and dismiss their concerns about the environment. They see when what we say about loving our neighbor doesn’t fit with how we actually treat our neighbors. They notice when we ignore blatant injustice while grumbling about a pop star and her football-player boyfriend. They’re watching, and what they see will determine whether they see you as an ally or just another adult who doesn’t understand them.
They need you to be an ally. They hope you’ll be. Give them reason to think you are. Don’t push and shove them toward the destination you want for them. Don’t impatiently drag them along behind you on your journey. Walk with them on theirs, as fellow disciples of Jesus. Be a point of connection between them, the church, and the world. You may just help them to grow.
I know they’ll help you.