One of those emails was sent by a friend and colleague in ministry who continues to reflect on the current generation of youth and their supposed (lack of) connection to and/or potential distrust of adults and the church. My friend wrote:
I found this question to be incredibly provocative and pertinent. I also was in need of a fresh blog post. That said, below is an edited and expanded response to my pastor friend. I can think of no better way to recover from tryptophan and prepare for the fast-approaching Advent season than to contemplate the relationship between this generation of youth, adults, and related church systems and institutions. I would love to hear your reflections...
"Have [youth] made vows (either consciously or unconsciously) that they will not trust adults, adult systems/institutions, and perhaps God? [Are] these trauma-initiated vows keeping this generation away from church more than anything else we are talking about?"
Happy Thanksgiving. Blessed Advent.
Pastor Friend and Youth Advocate,
There is clear probability for contemporary youth to be traumatized by the lack of advocacy and intervention by adults in regards to the increasingly violent and oppressive rhythms of contemporary society and media-driven, consumer culture. That's why I often recommend to adults in my suburban context, Death by Suburb, by David Goetz. He argues that, especially in the 'burbs, youth have tragically become collateral for adults, utilized to buy particular "immortality symbols," prestigious status, and much desired glory. Youth are crucified upon crosses of AP classes, endless travel sports teams, music lessons, college tours, etc. They face so much pressure to achieve not always for their benefit, but frequently for the benefit of the adults who are lauded when their sons and daughters "succeed."
I also believe most youth are too busy to be kids, too tired to play, and too overworked academically that they do not have the brain power left to contemplate other pertinent and formative conversations beyond the walls of their high schools. They come to church drained...if they come at all. Then you talk to their parents. They either throw their hands in the air because they don't know how to escape or they toss out lines to young parents like myself, "you will understand how tough it is one day." This is a fatalist mentality that has co-opted the conscience of adults. They have, sometimes unknowingly, exchanged their identity as disciples for myths of achievement within this rat race to nowhere. As a result, their kids are losing their minds. They have also begun to lose their primary advocates within the church, i.e. the adults who are called to form, shape, and send them as participants within the liberating kingdom of God.
So, to answer your question, do I think youth "distrust" adults? No.
I think they long for adults to step in as advocates of a different way of being in the world. They crave adult attention and intervention within a culture that victimizes them through mass media and technology. They are looking for good news of rest and acceptance, to be called beloved with no strings attached, in a world saturated with pressure, anxiety, and increasingly high demands. They want to be told they are not defined by numbers, letters, extra curricular activities, or class schedules. Hence our youth ministry's name: imago Dei.
That said, I actually think youth do trust adults. Which is why they continue to flounder in the very sea of anxiety that adults (and the church?) are telling them is either acceptable or unavoidable. They are listening, watching, and waiting for their message. Yet these same adults are also beginning to evaporate from a larger and more meaningful participation in church life, mission, and formative practices.
This is why it is imperative for youth ministry not to exist in isolation form the broader mission, vision, and activity of the larger congregation. While we may charge youth pastors to teach youth about the Bible, related ethics, faith, commitment to the church, etc., we often forget that we cannot cure cancer with tylenol. In other words, when larger tumors of passivity and idolatry are growing in the adult populous, we cannot expect to alleviate the reoccurring symptoms of adolescent fatigue, depression, and disinterest in matters of faith and discipleship within the church. We must look for a better and more effective treatment that works to shrink the root cause of these symptoms.
In essence, your question affirms my hypotheses that the church needs a broader narrative for Sunday morning liturgy, preaching, adult ed courses, fellowship events, missional partnerships, and discipleship programs. We need to reinvision our institutional language and paradigms. We need to see our investment in the spiritual formation of adults within our congregations, many who are parents of teenagers, as deeply connected to the vision and goals of youth (and children's) ministries. Better said, our youth depend upon the spiritual formation of the adult populous because they do trust them...
They trust them so much that when they stop being involved in the church...so do they...
When adults stop innovating and creating fresh church expressions...so do they...
When those they look up to and admire hesitate to consider radical opportunities to incarnate the gospel in their neighborhoods, communities, and places of work..so do they...
These are all reasons why youth not only struggle to be the much needed missional players in the ecclesial present, but also grow weary in the quest to be those whom God calls and sends to form and shape our ecclesial future.
Again, do I think youth are leaving or will leave the church because they don't trust us as adults? No.
But they may leave because the adults they do trust never offered them anything unique, substantive, or imaginative.
I look forward to on-going conversations...