That Happy Face Was a Lie
This photo was taken in the 1990’s, about 3 years after I graduated high school. Just a few years before, at age 18, I was still a thoroughly churched “kid,” but I’d been struggling with doubts and questions for a long time, even at that age. In the short years between 18 and this photo, I stopped trying to ask my faith questions. I walked away from church, and I left behind all belief, all habits of prayer or devotion, and all hope that any church could provide the answers I had been looking for back in high school. This is precisely what we don’t want for our teens and young adults, yes?
Unbelief. Godlessness. Abuse. Loneliness. Sin. Grief.
This young lady looks happy, but she was not. She was isolated, damaged, anxious, and adrift. I don’t know why more than two decades of despondent disbelief became my story, but I have a few ideas about it…and I’d like to share them.
Teenagers as Hairy Babies
There is a trend in Western culture to infantilize teenagers, and our churches are no exception. Throughout history, teenagers were given a lot more agency and allowed to accomplish a lot more than they are today. My country and a lot of other countries were literally formed, organized, and built by people under 30. Teenagers did (and do) work, vote, fight in wars, and pay taxes, but we generally don’t let them flex their agency in any other areas of life, not even in worship. This conception of teenagers as large infants who can’t handle anything is extremely new.
Somewhere along the way, we began to forcibly extend childhood beyond its natural boundaries, and I think it’s been a cataclysmic mistake.
My Personal Recollections as an Example
For those of you who haven’t read this blog before, I was raised in my mother’s conservative Roman Catholic home. We attended the Latin Mass and observed a much more liturgical set of rites than the modern Catholic Church. My father is a Missionary Baptist, and I spent a lot of Sundays in his church, as well.
I was a teenager when I first examined the state of my faith with any depth, and I was very separated from the adults in my church at that time. Teenagers live in a strange and nebulous in-between world where they’re expected to behave like adults but relate like children. The idea that I could turn to adults in my church for theological guidance, expecting to be received without disapproval, condescension, or dismissal was so alien to my thinking that I never actually tried. I entered my wilderness years of unbelief alone, and that is one of the biggest regrets and resentments of my life. I was not “just a kid.” I was a Christian losing her Christianity, and I needed more than a pat on the head from authority. I put out a few feelers for help, but I never actually believed I would get any.
I once tentatively admitted to a young priest who didn’t know me that I felt abandoned by God. I was 18 or 19 at the time. His response was, “God didn’t abandon you; that’s silly. You just need to come back to Mass.” He was technically right. It was an unfounded fear, and I did need to return to corporate worship, but he didn’t actually look at the issue with me, and that shut me down. I was trying to test the surface with that conversation. My feeling of abandonment was an introductory question–it was the easy one for me to say out loud. Underneath that first question was a deep and roiling black river of fear and doubt and confusion. I was trying to get help, to gather support so I could deal with my unbelief. The young priest in question couldn’t know all of that. It wasn’t his “fault,” but that interaction was my first attempt to walk out onto my scary, frozen river of doubt. The priest’s rather casual dismissal was like the ice cracking under my feet. It wasn’t safe to go any further, so I didn’t.
I never attempted to share my deeper state of unbelief with another priest or pastor. I never shared it with anyone (other than God) until I started this blog.
I honestly believe that my 20 years in the wilderness happened on purpose, and I have never blamed it on the fresh-from-seminary priest who bungled a short encounter with me. He never had any idea that our moment together formed a crucial pivot point in my faith. He is still a priest, more than 25 years later, and by all accounts he is an excellent servant for Christ.
I’ve had a lot of years to think about it, though, and I wonder if he would have responded differently to my words if they’d come from an adult. I wonder how many teenagers have put their toes out onto the ice, like I did, only to receive a dismissive and shallow answer. How many of those teens retreated and never reached out again?
I think this is a subject we should look at. I think these are questions we should ask.
At 16-19, I was seen as a child, and the church shepherded me as a child, even though my struggle was not at all childlike. I felt comfortable approaching my Catholic priests and Baptist pastors about troubles at home, problems with friendships or boyfriends, and any habitual sins that tempted me. Even the intimidating Father Ward, my senior pastor at the time, whose stoic countenance scared me half to death, was completely approachable with those kinds of questions. I instinctively knew, however, that if I went to him with, “I have never really believed in Jesus,” a watered-down kid version of faith counsel would have come out.
That’s silly. You just need to go back to church and obey your parents.
Am I being unfair here? Maybe I’m totally wrong, and I hope that I am. At 16, I was every bit as self-absorbed as the stereotypes suggest. So, maybe I read the whole environment wrongly, and Father Ward would’ve whipped out some Augustine and some solid scriptural counsel to help me find Christ. If anyone could have, it would’ve been him. He really was something to behold in the knowledge and perspective departments.
I will always admire Father Ward and be grateful for his place in my faith’s story. Maybe I’ll write a whole thing about him someday.
But even if I was wrong, and even if the adults in my church would have given me legitimate theological support and counseling, I didn’t believe that they would. An open kind of relationship between adult and teen was never formed or fostered in either of my churches. I don’t think I am alone in that experience, and I don’t think the rise of a new generation has changed it much. If anything, what I’m seeing is an even bigger wall put up between youth and the body as a whole.
Keep the Kids in Their Box
I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with how compartmentalized we tend to make things within the social life of “doing church,” and nowhere is this compartmentalization more stark than the divide we put up between adults and “kids.”
Please understand that I’m not trying to insult or impugn youth programs in church. Youth ministry is a vital ministry, and I am grateful to those who answer a call to serve young people in the church. If youth groups are the only place our teenagers are allowed to participate, however, I think it risks leaving young people isolated from the church after high school. Isn’t that a huge concern right now? Aren’t there studies and articles abounding all over the place asking why so many young people flee from the church in their early 20’s, never to return?
A lot of churches have responded by doubling down on youth-only programs. Kid ministry, youth ministry, teen ministry, and young adult ministry–the menu is colorful and diverse. What I have never seen on those program brochures is a robust integration ministry that introduces teenagers to adult responsibility, education, and membership in the church.
A lot of this compartmentalization is a response to the belief that church isn’t “relevant” for teenagers. I swear, if I hear the word relevant one more time in that kind of context for church, I might pass out in apoplexy. The Bible is always relevant, and teenagers can engage with real study even if you don’t install a blacklight and get some guy in his 20’s to play an electric guitar for them in the youth hall. In fact, they’re far more likely to engage if you don’t patronize them this way. Young people are not idiots; they’re just young, and they know the difference between service and pandering. They will rise to the occasion, but you have to give them an occasion to rise to.
Man alive, I hope I’m wrong. I hope 30 of you come in here and fuss at me in the comment section, telling me about how your church does it–that your church plucks out the 14 year-old Bible nerds and the 17 year-old evangelists, puts them to work, sends them to seminary, encourages them to teach, and treats them like brothers and sisters in the congregation. I hope you tell me all about the young adult programs open to high school and college students that give young Christians a foundational education to address doubts, answer common challenges in the Bible, and instill basic apologetic thinking so that they go off to university with a core of spiritual grounding and strength.
Please do that. It would make my decade.
My position is that a perpetual banishment to the kids’ table might teach our teens that they don’t belong in the larger body. When they hit 21 and their first real adult crises come, they will feel too old to talk to youth ministers but youth ministry might be the only home they ever had in church. This means they’ll be unsure about and unfamiliar with any mature members of the congregation. Will they know which ones have the Bible education necessary to address their doubts? Will the pastor have an open door they can walk through, or will they have to make an appointment to get 5 minutes, two weeks from now, with a busy man who doesn’t even remember who they are?
Where does the church meet their needs? Where are they supposed to go? Will a Sunday sermon address the secular questioning of Christianity they face? Will joining a small group give them access to someone who has the theological chops to answer their own doubts? The answer to both of those is, “no,” by the way. So, then what?
Am I making sense here, or is this just a babble no one else deals with? I’m genuinely curious, which is why I write these things in public.
Let Teens Join the Grownups in Bible Study
I see all of these Bible studies manufactured for adults, and that is great, but alongside almost all of them, you will find a totally separate Bible study by the same teacher, with the same title, covering the same topic…for teens. I’m sorry, but you have got to be kidding me. Apparently, teens and adults are so separated from one another in the church that we’ve actually developed a belief they can’t even study Scripture together. It’s driving me nuts. There is no reason teenagers couldn’t join an adult bible study if they wanted to. Let them.
If a teenager loves studying the Bible, let him study with whomever he wants. Don’t imply that he can’t keep up with a Bible study in the men’s group. Don’t assume that he’s too immature to understand an adult Bible study. He isn’t. Men his age built this country, and men his age continue to work in it, pay taxes to it, and fight for it. He can handle the book of Romans. If you limit his Christian peer group to one tiny age-range, it isolates him from access to men. It prevents him from walking beside men who’ve earned some earthly wisdom and have been following Christ for 40 years, 20 years, only 5 months, etc. It keeps him away from the perspectives and accumulated answers that gather in a room full of godly men who have sinned, backslid, experienced loss, and learned to persevere in faith. Maybe that 75 year-old brother who’s been going to the Saturday morning men’s breakfast for 30 years will know just how to address a teen’s particular doubt. Maybe–and isn’t this a kicker–the teenager could offer a perspective that the 75 year-old has forgotten how to see. If you don’t allow these two men to cross paths in a church family they both belong to, then what are you doing?
What are we doing? It’s unnatural and it’s not right.
Let Teens Join the Grownups in Worship
In many churches, the teenagers don’t even worship in Sunday service with the adults. Like the babies and the five year-olds, they are scuttled off to cloistered youth worship where they will listen to Christian rock music and a theology-lite version of whatever sermon the “real members” are getting. A youth minister will try to “engage” with the youth in a way that’s “relevant” to their lives. I know that what I’m about to say is harsh, but it’s the truth so here it is: That is revolting. It’s too precious by an order of magnitude, and the teenagers know it, too. It makes me enraged on behalf of the 18 year-old I once was. It is failure on a cosmic scale, and it’s not okay.
I believe that it’s well-meant, but I also believe it’s condescending and paternalistic* to a degree that will shut off any form of real communication with a teenager in the room who’s dealing with actual crisis and trauma. The content is shallow, and our teens know it. That girl who’s suffering real trauma and that boy who’s trapped in a horrifying pit of sin are not going to share their pain with you if the only thing you and Jesus have to offer them is a puddle-deep application study for children while T-Mac beats a vaguely Christ-adjacent drum in the background.
*Of course there are cases where real work is going on with youth ministers who have the training and the spiritual gifts necessary to address adolescent minds in a meaningful and powerful way. But be honest…do you think that’s what’s going on in the majority of these Sunday gatherings? Also, I love Toby Mac, so don’t hate-tweet me about that. I know my thoughts here are uncharitable. That’s why I’m presenting them for public correction and scrutiny. Show me I’m wrong. I’ve never wanted so badly to be wrong.
In a segregated youth setting, you could teach them through a systematic theology text. They can handle it, and they’ll thank you for it. Teach them the manuscript and canon history of the Bible. That will actually arm them in the college years when their faith is attacked. Read entire chapters of the Bible and don’t skip the ugly pieces. That, too, will arm them against backsliding when they leave the nest. Teach them hymns made from psalms that have genuine theological depth.
They’ll think it’s boring and stop coming.
Really? That’s the worry? It’s certainly the one I see in all the articles on Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition and blogs about “relevant” ministry (please, for the love of all that is holy, get rid of that word). That’s apparently the big fear–that if you don’t make it fun and bring in fog machines, the teens won’t come. I’m going to say another uncharitable thing, so brace up: If your goal is to get a particular number of butts in seats, then you’re doing it wrong. There will always be butts in seats because the Holy Spirit will call them there if you’re working for Him. If what you’re after is an attendance goal on a growth spreadsheet, you’re no longer doing the Spirit’s work; you’re just working for the man.
Teenagers are people, and faith is not static. It’s a different discipline for teens than for 6th-graders. Sure, you should take them to do fun activities and allow them to experience exuberant joy (and eat lots of food) in a safe, godly environment. While we’re hosting laser tag night, however, we mustn’t forget to be serious about theology and the Bible.
If we don’t equip teenagers for true faith in a post-Christian world, a huge number of them are going to turn out just like me. They will leave, and a lot of them won’t come back. Some of the rest will stay in church, but they’ll be going through the motions without any true love for Christ. They will be cultural Christians, keeping the Sabbath for appearance, for tradition. That isn’t what church is for.
Church is for worship and for equipment. So worship with them and equip them.
Entertainment is irrelevant. Equipment is what’s relevant. Teenagers already know that because they’re taking calculus and world history and English literature in school. One of those classes bores the snot out of them, but they do the homework anyway because they know it’s for their own good; they know it’s necessary for a healthy and fruitful future. Also, the Bible isn’t boring, so…have a little faith.
Introduce Them To Their Real Peers
American teenagers spend all day long, five days per week, in a society of nothing but people their own age. At school, it’s nothing but 14-18 year-olds day in and day out. Why does the church think it’s so important they spend their entire faith life in this same fabricated, unnatural, and divided structure?
Teenagers are perfectly capable of developing healthy relationships with kids and adults of all ages, and for some teenagers, a peer group might look like a quilting circle, a book club, a gaming group, or a car club. The members of those peer groups might range drastically in age, but they’re still peers. So find teens who are your peers, and let them be a part of your group. Be the grownup who introduces them to their lifelong tribe. Help them find their forever people.
Teenagers are fully-functioning and perfectly capable human beings. They bring insights and ideas that are unique to youth. That kind of optimism and fearless naivety are the fertile soil for innovation and discovery, but these are the very contributions of the young we tend to undervalue or dismiss. Teenagers need theology and a little bit of credit for knowing their own minds in the church. They are people, and they are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Am I wrong to think we should treat them as such?
The Big Finish
Just think about it, won’t you? Consider it and see if you find anything in my frustration that tracks as truth. If you’re in a position to shift things and open your discipleship activities to the younger generation–to foster their sense of belonging and their sense of ownership in responsibility to the church–please do it. Clearly, after 3500 words in this massive wall of text, I think it’s important. I hope you think it’s important, too.
If you have the great privilege of being chosen as the representative of God’s authority at a teenager’s crucial pivot point in faith, make sure you have something more substantive to offer than, “That’s silly. You just need to go to church and obey your parents.” Be the one who answered his questions. Be the one who pointed her back to the Cross. Be the one who takes God, and his teenaged children, seriously.