Posts tagged ‘Adolescence’

Fake Christians

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An article on CNN’s Belief Blog this week was talking about the faith of American teenagers, or the lack thereof.

The author asserts that although three out of four American teenagers identify themselves as being Christians, fewer than half of those practice their faith and only half deem it important. Most of these teenagers cannot articulate their faith and tend to believe that God is just a benevolent spirit whose purpose is to make them feel good about themselves.

The blog post is about a book called, Almost Christian by a United Methodist minister named Kendra Creasy Dean, who is also a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dean says that the summer she spent interviewing teenagers for her book was one of the most depressing periods in her life.

Elizabeth Corrie, an Emory University professor who directs the Youth Theological Initiative, a theological boot camp for teens, says about teenagers, “We think that they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake.” If teenagers aren’t excited about their faith, it’s because we haven’t given them the tools they need to get excited.

It’s been many years since I worked with youth in the church. I quit my last volunteer work with youth in the mid-nineties. However, I can tell you that this blog post sounds just about right. The thing that I argue with in Dean’s conclusion is not that teenagers don’t have a cohesive view of their faith, but rather her level of alarm at her conclusion.

Less than half of American teenagers are excited or articulate about their faith because less than half of all Americans are sincerely committed Christians. The vast majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians as a cultural affiliation and not because of any profound commitment to Christ. What they mean when they say they are Christians is that they celebrate Christmas and Easter, they’re free to eat pork, they don’t have to pray to Mecca five times a day, and no chanting is required of them. God bless hamburgers and apple pie!

I haven’t noticed a significant deterioration in the faith of the American Christian in my lifetime. It’s always been hurting. Maybe it’s just taken this long for someone to notice. The teenagers get their attitudes about faith from their parents.

When I was a youth minister, it wasn’t the teens who presented my greatest obstacle. It was the parents. Most of them felt that the definition of a youth minister was someone with a penis and a guitar who knows how to plan ski trips and organize recreational excursions like a cruise director. Essentially, a great proportion of the parents I worked with thought that my job was to entertain their children and keep them from taking drugs or getting in trouble. Period. End of story.

My take on the matter was that the reason they felt that way was because they themselves lacked a mature and articulate faith. These parents attended church because it was a social outlet and because it was culturally expected of them. It was the “right” thing to do, in other words, to be involved in church, do nice things sometimes, and bring their children to church so that they could learn the importance of being a nice person and a good citizen.

Being a Christian is about so much more than just being “nice.” The teenagers who are meant to find Christ and truly accept him in their hearts will seek the answers they need. I’m not alarmed that so many of them can’t verbally communicate their views on faith.

Their views on faith are not fully formed. They’re like wet clay. It’s only when we get older that the clay becomes hard and less malleable. And if we’re very, very lucky, then we’re never baked in a kiln. There’s always a little give to change a pose or an expression. We’re all works in progress, and with God as our sculptor it’s never too late.

August 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm Leave a comment

You Can Go Back – But It Won’t Be the Same

Two days ago I went to McNeil High School to drive the daughter of a friend so that she could pick out her locker and get her school ID card. I haven’t been in a high school in a long time. I didn’t even go back for any of my high school reunions. It just didn’t interest me. I figured that if I had been super motivated to keep in contact with those people, then I still would be. And besides, most of them are on Facebook.

High school was a positive experience for me. I actually enjoyed high school. I stayed active in choir and drama and performed in plays and musicals and built sets. I loved it, and I had a lot of fun.

But high school was also a time of uncertainty and insecurity. I washed my face twice a day with Noxzema or Phisoderm and poured the astringent on a cotton ball and smeared it all over my face. I spent over an hour getting ready every morning. I’d roll my hair in hot rollers, wait for it to set, brush it out and slather it with a layer of hair spray. As I recall, it was a period of high maintenance.

This time, as I went back, I was going as a kind of parental figure, the responsible adult if you will. Everyone assumed that I was the parent, and no one mistook me for a student. I got to observe. The kids all hated getting their pictures taken. They refused to smile. They tried to look away from the camera.

When I was in my twenties and working with youth I observed that a significant minority of youth workers are in it to relive their youth, only this time they would be the cool, self-assured older kid. These people were pretty easy to spot. They act as if they are a teenager and approach teenagers as if their job is simply to be their friends.  Think Matthew McConaughey’s character, David, in Dazed and Confused.

I am the responsible adult now. I haven’t been a teenager in many, many years. And guess what? I don’t miss it. I don’t want to go back. I’m still self-conscious about getting my picture taken. That is just about the only thing that hasn’t changed about me.

When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to be an adult. Now that I’m an adult I am looking forward to the rest of my life, and I think it’s only getting better.

August 20, 2010 at 3:39 pm Leave a comment

Doubt in Real Life

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Lots of adults in authority positions with children and teenagers abuse these positions. Teachers, counselors, doctors, priests and ministers, among others, are guilty of abusing power. However, we all know that there are lots of really great examples of adults that work with youth. Lots of great people extend a hand and an ear to kids that are sometimes deeply troubled. With kids unlikely to report their abusers in these situations how do we figure out who’s guilty and who’s innocent?

I worked with children and youth in a large protestant denomination while I was in college and in my early twenties, as both a paid staff person and a volunteer. Among the many things we had to study was how to protect ourselves from being wrongly accused of improper conduct with a minor, what was suspicious behavior, and what types of behavior in a child or teen could indicate possible abuse. For instance, you wouldn’t want to invite a teen over to your home for a visit if another adult were not present as a witness. It’s sad that something so possibly innocent has to be avoided at all costs but what’s sadder is when a child is molested or a person’s reputation is needlessly ruined.

I was working a camp with a couple of other youth workers who were friends of mine one summer when I was still in college. One of the youth workers was a volunteer and a college friend of mine that we’ll call Violet. The other was a youth minister from a large urban church that I had met at several of these types of functions, and we had struck up a nice friendship. I’ll call him Paul. He later went on to seminary and now is a very successful ordained minister with a small town congregation.

At that time in my life I was very active in the church and active in my campus ministry organization. I had a friend that we’ll call James. I went to high school with him, but we only really hit it off in college, through the campus ministry. James wasn’t at the camp with Violet, Paul and me. James had graduated the year before and was trying to secure a position as a full time youth minister without much luck.

I didn’t know it, but Paul and James knew each other. Paul was not a big fan of James. What? Not a big fan of James?! Who wouldn’t love James? Why, he was funny and kind and smart! I had worked around him with children on a daily basis, and he was good with them. James and I had a pact to marry if neither one of us was hitched by the time I turned forty. Why wouldn’t Paul like James?

That’s when Violet and Paul told me that they would let me in on a little secret, but I had to promise not to tell James. It seems that Paul and James had worked a camp together the summer before. At this camp James had been witnessed doing some suspicious things with one of the campers. He spent an inordinate amount of time talking, alone, with a boy. Since he was the boy’s camp counselor he was assigned the same cabin as his sleeping quarters. He’d been witnessed more than once sitting in the boy’s bunk at night and touching him while they talked, not inappropriately, but touching. He’d been talked to about this behavior by one of the camp leaders and had afterward still persisted in the behavior.

After he told me about his experience with James, Paul told me something else. There was a statewide “blacklist” for children’s protection, of people whom the church leaders had deemed inappropriate to work with children. This list was often consulted by churches in our denomination before they made a decision on whether or not to hire or even interview a potential youth worker.

At that point in time in my life it didn’t seem fair to me that James should be judged so harshly and labeled a possible pedophile based on the flimsy “evidence” that had been provided. Basically, what got him thrown on that list was one person reporting his suspicion of inappropriate conduct. Any one of us could have been added to that list. Once, at a lock in, I took a sixteen-year-old boy out to the church parking lot by ourselves and taught him how to drive a stick shift, using my car, until it occurred to me how it might look to others.

To make a long story short, I broke my confidence to Paul and Violet and let James know why he wasn’t able to secure a youth position. James confronted the church authorities in question, and Paul confronted me over the phone. He is a gracious man who has since forgiven me, but I regret having done it. James later secured a youth ministry position in another state and then came back for a successful stint in youth ministry at his home church, the one that he grew up in, where they’ve known him since he was a baby. He’s in seminary now. James and I are no longer friends for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my nagging doubts remaining over this issue. I do wish James well. I hope that there is nothing to doubt.

June 21, 2009 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

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