The 1997 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“At-Risk Youth, At-Risk Church:
What Jesus Christ and American Teenagers are
Saying to the Mainline Church”
Webster's has two meanings for the term "mainline." The one teenagers know is the practice of injecting narcotics directly into the bloodstream to get a quick high. The second definition means the principle route a train takes to reach its destination.
Pick your metaphor. The term "mainline church" was coined when trains, like churches, were a principal means of getting somewhere people wanted to go. Today, teenagers' understanding of "mainline" paints an ominous portrait of who we are as a church: once-‐able bodies who, after years of steady injections of American culture into our veins, have a dulled sense of who, what, and where we are.
We have reared a generation of teenagers to "just say no" to such behavior, and they're saying "no" to mainline Christianity in favor of visions of vitality elsewhere, many that endanger teenagers. According to a 1991 study released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, one in four teenagers is "at risk." The church must work with others to create communities of health and hope for young people.
Young people are also making another point. Their exodus from our pews and programs is a form of "tough love" to our denominations, telling us to shape up, to be who we say we are, and to let Jesus be who we say He is -‐ the Savior, even of the mainline church.
In our "I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional" world, it is easy to settle for therapy when resurrection is at stake. Maybe being "at risk" as a church isn't bad if it calls us back to the authenticity young people expect, and the Gospel requires. Maybe mainline churches and teenagers have something in common: a need to be saved.
These assumptions unite the lectures in this volume. The lectures in these pages provide an outline of "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church" from the perspectives of systematic theology, practical theology, sociology, education, and American religious history (and futurism).
These lectures point to a theological foundation for ministry with young people that views youth as part of the mission of Christ and not as objects to be "won" for the propagation of the church. We approach this direction with humility and hope. The future of the church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted when he himself was only twenty-‐seven years old, depends not on youth, but on Jesus Christ. Still, we are confident that young people are prophets in our midst, and that by attending to the "risk" that accompanies adolescence in 1997, we will be better prepared to take the risk that accompanies Christian faith in any era.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
- “Something to Believe In”
- “Youth Ministry: Historical Reflections near the End of the Twentieth Century”
- “Getting to All God's Kids”
- “What Jesus Christ and African American Teenagers Are Telling the African American Church”
- “Walking with Youth: Youth Ministry in Many Cultures”
- “Volcanic Eruptions: Eruptive Youth Ministry”
- “Promises and Practices for Tomorrow: Transforming Youth Leaders and Transforming Culture”
- “At-‐Risk Youth” “Today's Spiritual Quests”
- “Ministry to Youth Today”
- “Living in an Ancient Future Faith”
- “Youth Ministry: A Celebration and a Challenge”
GETTING TO ALL GOD’S KIDS
Clang! Clang! Clang! Three gates closed behind me as I was ushered through pea-green walls to a pea-green room with a pea-green desk and a pea-green chair. As I walked in, Blair stood up in his pea-green clothes. We hugged one another in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California, and I could feel the desperation in Blair's body. I didn't want to be there. He didn't want to be there. How had it come to this?
TearsThe tears flow freely down my cheekEach drop a silent word to speakSometimes when it's too hard to prayMy tears know just the words to say.page 26Sometimes they whisper hurt and painSometimes they simply fall like rainMore often they speak warmth and careAnd you will find God's presence there.I thank you God for tears that fallI thank you that you see them allThe words are silent but they're thereEach drop a precious liquid prayer.
This eighteen-year-old teenage saint reached out her hand, grasped mine, and held on — I don't know how long — long enough for the Spirit to do radical surgery on the festering boil in a young father's heart and to leave behind a finely sutured incision that would, in time, heal.
Blair in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and Bonnie in our living room. Each of them seventeen years old. What's the difference?
The difference: decisions made in a world of horrendous forces. Forces full of tremendous potential for life and meaning, or forces harboring the possibilities of early destruction.
Parents know this. Parents across this country say they want for a child, very early, an inner compass of life-giving values. Parents know that by the time their children are three, four, or five years old, they need to have an inner compass of life-giving values. For in the maelstrom of these forces, there are forks in the road. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds say many of these forks in the road come in seventh grade. They say, "It is difficult getting through junior high." They talk about the struggle; they describe how some young people take the high road, and some take the low road. What makes the difference? Decisions made by Bonnie, Blair, their parents, and the community; decisions made by church leaders, corporate leaders, political leaders, and government agencies in the midst of forces of life and death. Parents know their children need an inner compass of life-giving values as early as possible.
Parents also want their children to have a "load-star of positive faith in the future." Parents know that growing up is not easy. School phobia is prevalent today. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the incredible expectations in a competitive culture where they have to perform from the time they are very young.
Growing up is not easy anywhere in our culture. In some places it is nearly impossible. Kids know it. They say they "want a life." They say to each other, "Get a life. You got a life?"
Chris McNair lives in a community where the residents must take back the neighborhood from drug dealers every spring. Chris has developed a program called "SIMBA-lion" through which he connects young African American boys of tremendous promise with adult male mentors. Chris knows that unless these young men bond with someone to whom they look up, there are "twenty- and thirty-something male gang members" waiting to recruit them. Chris McNair has a part in taking back his community from the gangs every spring. The graduates of SIMBA are indeed lions — tough, smart, resilient — plucked from the streets by men and women who bond and walk with them.page 27
Our nation is learning the critical value of these decisions. It's chronicled by journalists; it's chronicled in the hallways of government. Whether it is through the intense, "hot psalmody of rappers," or the cool, objective statistics of researchers, our nation is discovering that we are squandering a national treasure.
Our churches know they must act. After three decades and nearly two generations of generally declining membership, congregations see a wake-up call in the faces of the youngest among us who say, "We find churches to be unengaging, strange, foreign, in fact, trivial, speaking about that which does not matter to us in a language we don't understand."
The wake-up call is moving in waves across our congregations. Let me speak of it in ways I know it best. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we now have nearly 3,000 leaders in children's, youth, and family ministry. In the five degree programs at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, we graduate sixty specialists in youth and family ministry each year. Each of these graduates has five or six offers or "calls" that come from across the country. We estimate that we need 6,000 of these specialists in our denomination, and we can't turn them out quickly enough.
Parents know it; kids know it; our churches know it; our nation is learning it. We stand at the threshold of one of the greatest challenges ever in youth ministry. As we stand at the gateway of this great challenge in the mission of the church, we face daunting, incredible difficulties.
As leaders in our churches face these challenges, partnerships are needed that will care not just for some, not just for many, but for all of God's kids — every one of God's kids. It will take a web that is intensely personal yet expansively global. It will be a time of paradoxes and tensions. Leaders will be called to live at an ever-quickening pace in ever more difficult tensions.
The task is spiritual, theological, and strategic. It requires faithfulness and effectiveness.
Youth and family ministry is deeply theological. Biblical and systematic theologians are rediscovering the significance of the Trinity. Ted Peters, a systematic theologian, argues in his book God As Trinity, that relationality is at the heart of God.
The Triune God is three who live as one: the God who is living creator; the God who is Jesus the Christ; the God who is inspiritor/encourager, Holy Spirit. This one who was in the past at creation and redemption is present everywhere in the world and will be forever. The mystery: What is at the heart of God? Relationship! God said, "Let us create humankind in our own image." Man and woman, God created them. Then, at the heart of God, at the center of reality, at the core of humankind, this mystery: relationship!
Look into the face of another, and you will see this mystery. Live alongside another, and you will never exhaust the possibilities in the relationship. Mystery! Holy ground!page 28
Every child is a reflection of the heart of God. At the core, at the heart of youth and family ministry, will not be programs, will not be new structures, will not be new technology. At the core will be entering deeply into these relationships with God and each other. It will mean looking into young people's faces as though they are actually there. This ministry is going to be counter-cultural; it will take time in a world that doesn't have enough time.
Second, this ministry calls us to theologically reconceive our understanding of children/childhood. Two major forces are marginalizing children and youth today. The first is economic: children are no longer a financial asset; in fact, they are a distinct economic liability.
The second is cultural: in the growing split between the public and private spheres, our society has privatized its understanding of children. Children have become primarily private property in America.
There is a sense in which a child is intensely private. But a child is not only the private property of the parents. A child is also a trust from God. A child is imago dei — created in the image of God — holy ground. Getting to all God's kids is grounded in the understanding that every child is a trust from God — on behalf of God. A child is not just the property of a mother, not just the property of a father.
A child is also a trust from God on behalf of the present. It is often said that if one wants to measure how constructive or how toxic a culture has become, one should look into the face of the most vulnerable. Children are among the most vulnerable in our contemporary culture. Who will speak for the children? Are our children doing well? Perhaps in the cry of the crack baby we hear the most poignant, honest evaluation of this culture.
A child is also the present tense of the future. When one looks into the face of a child, one has direct access to the future.
A child is a trust on behalf of the community. When parents or society do badly with a child, the entire community is affected. Neglect and abuse of children costs the community money; these children may even make the community an unsafe place. Providing constructive environments where children can thrive allows the children to become their best and to contribute to the larger common good. There are gifts in the child waiting to be unwrapped, and they are being wasted. A child is a trust on behalf of the community.
Finally, a child is a trust on behalf of the child. Genetic biologists tell us that 90 percent of who a child will be is already in the child's genetic code. That means that 10 percent of that child's becoming is influenced by the environment. What caregivers and society do with that 10 percent shapes self-confidence, values, and meaning. What one does with children can mean the difference between their becoming an Adolf Hitler or a Mother Theresa.
The child in our hands is a trust from God on behalf of God, on behalf of the present and the future, on behalf of the community, and on behalf of the child's own human mystery.page 29
Those interested in children must speak of this not only to those who know and agree, but also in public forums and in the public square so the minds and wills of a nation can focus on the nature of childhood.
Third, this theological task must re-invest in primary life relationships. Ours is a society that spends very little time and gives very little value to basic family relationships. I have a friend who is a banker. He said to me, "Rollie, primary life relationships — whether those are friendships or parent/child relationships or husband/wife relationships — are like saving accounts." I hadn't thought of it that way. He said, "If both persons make contributions to the account, the account will take their contributions, hold them in trust, gather interest, and return to them more than they have invested. But if they continue to withdraw from the account, the day comes when the accounts are overdrawn."
What are primary life relationships? They are covenants established between people that ensure that members of each generation will be cared for. Whatever families are going to be in the future, they are going to be intentional. Bill Doughtery at the University of Minnesota believes that if families are going to be anything, they are no longer going to be conventional; that is, they are no longer going to be set up by the flow of existence itself. Societal forces are centrifugal. Primary relationships are going to have to be intentional.
What will this look like? It will mean people looking into each other's faces with deep respect. It will mean promise-making and promise-keeping. It will mean listening to and hearing one another. It will mean developing the web of support that enables people to care for one another in these households.
One of the major tasks in youth ministry will be tending those places where infants essentially bond. A child's psychological birth, moral birth, and spiritual birth occur in those bonding relationships. They take place not primarily in youth groups or in programs; they take place in the interaction between caregiver and child.
Youth and family ministry has become popular. Twenty years ago youth ministry and Christian education were the primary ways of thinking about nurturing faith in children and youth. Youth ministry has now become essentially family-based, shaped in these primary life relationships.
What will these primary life relationships look like? They will come in all forms and structures. I hope they will be marked as sacred ground — by covenants — with individuals making promises in the presence of God; by people who look into each other's faces regularly and deeply; by people having respect for the most fragile as well as the strongest. The value of a relationship is not based on strength, skin color, denomination, or social class. It is based on the fact that we are all imago dei — created in the image of God. The purpose of these relationships is certainly to experience individual freedom and satisfaction. The purpose of these relationships is also to bring the generations together in such a way that they can care for one another. In doing so, the biggest challenge is going to be to allow the oldest among us and the youngest among us to give page 30 their gifts to one another.
Who is it in the biblical heritage that passes on the tradition? It is the aged. In turn, the children become "the promise" of the next generation. This has practical impact: when day care centers are located on the premises of long-term care facilities for the aged, the use of anti-depressants goes down because the aged have symbols of hope, of the next generation, of the resurrection.
Let me move from family to community. Youth ministry will also mean moving out of these more private spaces. The church has been fairly good at working with youth in the more private and parochial areas of their lives. We have created separate spheres and relationships. Social scientists tell us that Americans pull away from each other geographically and build walls around one another.
What will youth ministry look like in the future? Youth ministry will be walking the streets, making contact with and reuniting people and neighborhoods. It will require someone who can step outside the congregation into the community, one who earns the right to be there and to be heard. It may take a long time to get that permission.
What is youth ministry going to look like? It's going to look like the streetwalker who can walk in the communities and discover the assets, the gifts in the faces of kids, call them forth, link them up with others, invite people to the round-table of those who have a stake in the community, help them to generate the resources needed to take back the community — like Chris McNair's network does every spring on the south side of Minneapolis where SIMBA is changing the face of the Phillips neighborhood. Chris McNair is a streetwalker.
Youth ministers of the future must be ambassadors, people who can help a community discover a language through which they can talk to one another. Search Institute has discovered one such language in its developmental assets research. This common language and common sense enables the community to find a common mind, and in the finding of a common mind to make common cause for the sake of the common good. The institute gets people of very different values to sit at the same table and work at the laborious process of creating trust.
Youth workers of the future will be "community developers." In Woodbury, a suburban community that is so fragmented that rich kids are killing each other at four times the national average, about 60 percent of the young people say, "My parents don't care about me. They've abandoned me." The parents lavish things on their kids, but they are so busy in their own worlds that the kids say, "Our parents don't understand us." Someone needs to help the whole community look at its life patterns and structures and develop more constructive processes for caring for one another.
This constructive community life redevelopment has happened on the south side of St. Paul, Minnesota, where "twenty-something and thirty-something" gang leaders had controlled the neighborhoods. Now a Catholic priest, an African American grandmother, and a mortuary owner have become the stakeholders page 31 who started the conversation and have taken back the community.
Finally, this web of future youth ministry places at the intersection of Word and world a common, ordinary institution called the church.
I am not among those who believe the church is dying. I am not among those who believe that all churches should become mega-churches. I am among those who believe that it is in congregations where the most vital expression of the Spirit is alive. It is in congregations where the intersection between Word and world is most powerfully effective. The Spirit is especially alive in congregations that have found a way of saying to everyone, "Being and belonging is indeed an incredible, sacred mystery. Come be with us — we welcome you!"
I'm particularly concerned that these congregations be places that are hospitable to children. I've discovered they can be. I was in a congregation not long ago where the back pews had been taken out to create time-out space for kids. Hanging at the doorways into this church were cloth bags with children's materials written on the text for the day. The Scripture lessons there were read by a number of eight- and nine-year-olds. One was a little red-headed girl with glasses and freckles. She stood up to the microphone and read the text with power and clear interpretation. Everyone listened. The next text was read by a young man. Each text had a refrain that the whole group read. The Sunday school in this little church was divided into thirds. Every Sunday one third of the Sunday school led the congregation in a child's song, which was a regular part of the worship experience. The pastor began his sermon like this: "Milton entered the confirmation class (seventh grade confirmation), he walked to the front of the room, and he oozed all over the chair. Milton weighed 240 pounds; he was 5'2". When Milton sat down, someone in the back row yelled, 'Fatty! Clutz! Elephant!' That year the confirmation class studied God's love and forgiveness and discussed Milton." By this time in the sermon, every teenager in the congregation was listening.
The pastor leading the service was seventy years old if he was a day. He started the prayers of the church, "Dear Lord, I am aware it is the end of the semester at the high school. I understand that 38 percent of all students cheat. Dear God, give our students the courage and the discipline to study well this week. Keep them from temptation when they write their exams, and dear Lord, as they go to their exams go with them and help them to know that I'll be looking over their shoulders." In a few minutes, he said to every youth in that church, "I know your world. We're going to bring your world here. We're going to bring it right in front of the altar with God. And we're going to bring up the bad stuff with God. I believe God can make a difference. God is loose up at the high school. We're going to speak of it right here in front of the altar."
That congregation was a youth-friendly place. The most important hour in youth ministry in that little church was 11:00 o'clock on Sunday morning.
Congregations also need to usher kids into the presence of God. To do that requires the effective use of music. By the time a child is twelve years old in page 32 America, that young person has a second native language — rock music. There is no way to work with kids in America and not learn something of their music. Youth ministers must exegete rock music; they must help kids make music; they must gather those who can make a variety of music well. Young people will find God most readily in music.
So this web of youth ministry in the twenty-first century will be a set of collaborative relationships among strange partners. It will have a deep, intense respect for particularity. It will seek to look into the face of every child as though that child is actually there. It will have a broad and incredible inclusivity. It will see the child, the young person, the family, the congregation, the community as elements of an integrated whole. It will seek to build bridges and to unleash assets for both citizenship and discipleship.
Congregations are clamoring for leaders who can help them do this ministry. Now is an incredible time to be a part of youth and family ministry.
What do we do with this challenge and opportunity? God is calling each of us to live on our "curve of competence and excellence" in youth and family ministry.
First, the inclusive web of youth ministry will require individuals with a living faith who love kids and possess the knowledge and skill to nurture faith and life in children, youth, and their families. Thanks to people like Sara Little and Merton Strommen, two of my mentors, we have a huge body of research, knowledge, and skills. We do not enter this without wisdom. I call this level one youth ministry.
Second, we need people with the characteristics and competencies of level one who also possess the capacity to engage, train, and support teams of children, youth, and family lay leaders who minister in the congregation and reach out to the world. I call this level two youth ministry.
In my studies of youth ministry, I've discovered that a person who is called to a congregation and does the youth ministry himself or herself will usually develop ministry with thirty to forty kids and will stay about eighteen months. A person with the skills of level one and the capacity of level two can reach at least 200 to 250 kids and will stay on the average for three to three-and-a-half years.
Level three youth ministry involves people with the characteristics and competencies of levels one and two, who also possess the capacity to develop a congregational vision of children's, youth, and family ministry. When people can do the first two levels and stay long enough to do the third level, they leave behind them a fifteen-to-twenty-year legacy of youth ministry in the congregation.
Level four youth ministry includes people with the characteristics and competencies of levels one, two, and three who also possess the capacity to lead other people in establishing children- and youth-friendly communities. In the future, congregations will need to be more like mission outposts assisting communities in becoming better places for children to grow in citizenship and discipleship.
Level five includes those with the expertise and credentials to enrich other professionals and provide leadership in the larger church in children's, youth, and family ministry. I envision at least 36,000 people in the network of experts pushing the envelope of page 33research, both pure and applied, that enables those of us who are at the other four levels to do our work better.