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”
WALKING WITH YOUTH:
YOUTH MINISTRY IN MANY CULTURES
A young girl — fifteen years old — calls me one night. She says, "M.E., my boyfriend and I were just talking about how God created the world, and we can't figure out how God could create the world in seven days. Can you help us understand? We have been talking for two hours, and it is really interesting, but I thought you could help us figure this out."
A sixteen-year-old boy calls another night and says, "M.E., my history class is studying world religions, and I am supposed to make a presentation about what Christians believe about the afterlife. Can you help me?" I sent him some notes and copies of pages from three or four books. Two weeks later, I asked him, "How did the report go?" He responded, "It went great. I had no idea that Christians believed so many different things about the afterlife, and neither did the people in my class. You know that here, in Southern Baptist country, most people assume that all Christians believe what they believe. The other kids were really surprised and interested in what I shared. So was I!"
A group of Tongan girls, aged thirteen to nineteen, join their mothers and aunts in the United Methodist Women's week-long School of Missions. They participate fully, and some of the other women ask them if they are enjoying themselves, and if they mind being in this big group of page 48 women who are all twenty to sixty years older than they are. The Tongan girls reply, "We love it! We are learning so much and everyone is really nice to us. This is great fun!"
An eighteen-year-old boy graduates from high school — barely — and he enters a major depression. His closest friend has recently died in an automobile crash, and he is still grieving the loss. Also, now that he has finished high school, he does not know what he wants to do next, or even what he could do. Further, he is having physical problems, and his parents cannot pay the bills for the necessary treatment. In the midst of all these issues, the young man does not have the energy to get a job or to seek further education because nothing ever seems to work out for him anyway.
A group of young people are sitting around a table talking about their beach trip yesterday. They laugh at what happened, and then they slump when their Sunday morning class begins. Someone asks, "What do you like about this church?" They begin to talk, and soon, they sparkle again, "This is the only place we can come and just be ourselves because everywhere else we go, people think we are Hispanics or part of some other group. We can be Native Americans here — just be ourselves."
These are all stories of youth walking along the pathways of their lives. What do the youth of these five stories say to us? Who are the young people in your lives, and what are they saying to you through their words and actions as you walk alongside them? With these young people in mind, we enter into the focus of this first lecture — walking with youth and learning from them about possibilities for youth ministry in diverse cultures and contexts.
Walking with youth has to do with being available when the telephone rings. It has to do with planning opportunities to come together for worship and work, study and prayer, fellowship and play, or just being around when nothing particular is planned. In the context of religious community, the journey is complex and wonder filled. Thus, we will consider here the particular wonders of the journey in Christian community, focusing attention on three themes — walking with Jesus, walking with youth, and packing our backpacks with wisdom about youth ministry.
WALKING WITH JESUS
If walking with youth is so illuminating, what do we learn from walking with Jesus? Imagine yourself traveling on a road with Jesus. That is what Mark asked his community to do when they were confronted by two stories — one related to children and one related to a rich young man of unknown age. We will not find Jesus talking about adolescence as we in the twentieth century do, but we can learn much from these two familiar tales.
JESUS AND THE CHILDREN
People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is page 49 to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his aims, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16, NRSV)
Before we actually look at this text, reflect for a moment on the disciples, who themselves walked with Jesus every day. The twelve disciples and the women who followed Jesus traveled many miles and asked many questions; yet they still wondered who was the greatest and what Jesus' teachings really meant, especially the teachings about what was demanded of them as his followers. No sooner did they comprehend one teaching than Jesus would say or do something that would turn everything upside down again.
Now and then, Jesus would stop with the disciples for a few precious moments of conversation, but even then people kept coming, and the world kept pressing him. Certainly leaders in youth ministry often experience this same phenomenon of having things from the outside world interfere with their best-laid plans — bad weather precludes a long-planned outing, or bad moods dampen a festive event. The world presses in when we are walking with youth, and so the world pressed in when Jesus was walking with his disciples.
Return in your imaginations to the day when the children came to see Jesus. The disciples preferred to send the children away. Perhaps they thought discipleship was possible only for adults; after all, Jesus had been speaking a lot about the cost of discipleship, about taking up one's cross. (Mark 8:31 -38) In light of all that strong talk, the disciples may have been confused by this story of Jesus and the children, especially since it follows another story of children. In that earlier story, Jesus responded to the disciples' dispute about who was the greatest among them by placing a child in the middle of them and saying, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." (9:37) The disciples may have been honestly confused by such teaching, or they may have simply not liked it.
Whatever the disciples thought, however, Jesus let the children come. He said to them, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter." He took the children in his arms and blessed them. He laid his hands on them, conveying that God's call was to them also. This was an appalling act. Children were expected to look to adults as models, but Jesus was asking adults to look toward children.
Why? Perhaps the children were special to Jesus because of their ability to receive. While the adults around Jesus were trying to earn Jesus' attention and love — to comprehend the demands of discipleship — the children simply received. Jesus urged the adults to be alert to God's presence as little children are alert, to be alert to the sorrows in the world, and most importantly, to be alert to receiving God's love.
But the stories of Jesus in Mark are not that simple. Although these texts are page 50 commonly shared in the Christian community, the countercultural nature of the message is frequently ignored. Christian churches, for example, often have difficulty supporting ministries with children and youth, or ministries on behalf of children and youth in the larger society. Churches often take little part in addressing the abuse of young people within their own congregations or parishes and even in addressing the abuse of youth by representatives of the church. Some efforts have been made to call attention to the significance of children and youth in the community and to encourage the creation of safe havens for young people, but these challenges are not fully heeded. 1 In such a context, the teachings found in Mark are radical indeed. They suggest the importance of caring for the young, even seeing them as representatives of Christ (9:37) who reveal how people are to respond to the reign of God. (10:15) Thus, if we are to walk with Jesus, we are called also to walk with our children and youth.
A STRANGER APPROACHES
The second story is found in the Gospel of Mark immediately after the episode with the children. Picture the disciples sitting beside the road pondering these things, only to look up and see that Jesus was moving again. They probably had to run to catch up with him. Mark's Gospel is a stack of stories that, like a stack of cards, could be put together in almost any order. Although Mark probably felt compelled to organize the accounts of Jesus' early ministry at the beginning and the accounts of his death and resurrection at the end, other stories could be introduced for purposes fitting to Mark and his community. Mark probably intended to place the story of Jesus' blessing the children immediately prior to the story of the stranger who came running. Both deal with the kingdom of God, but their messages are strikingly different, as a look at the second story will reveal.
No sooner had Jesus left the children than someone else came to meet him — a stranger who asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17-27) Jesus answered, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." But Jesus did not end there. He continued the conversation, perhaps sensing the man's sincerity, and also his limits. "You know the commandments," he said. "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery...." Now Jesus knew, and his Jewish hearers would have known, that the first commandment is "You shall have no other gods beside God." The man said, "Teacher, 1 have kept all these since my youth." Jesus' compassion went out. Perhaps he saw that the man was already aware of something amiss in his life. Jesus' response was a shocker: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Again, Jesus was turning everything upside down. Much of this man's tradition saw wealth as a reward for righteousness; wealth carried with it an obligation to tithe, but not to give everything away. The man went away sorrowfully. This walk with Jesus on the road did not have a happy ending.
The disciples were then left with Jesus by the side of the road. And readers page 51 today are also left asking ourselves, "What do I put before God that I should give up? How can I serve the poor and hurting people in this world? What must I do to follow?" But think about this stranger, who is called a "young man" in Matthew (19:16-22) and a "lawyer" in Luke's shorter version of the story. (10:25-28) He was really very courageous to come forward and ask Jesus this question, even though he was probably naive in expecting a simple answer. Perhaps he was even a little arrogant, thinking that Jesus would tell him that he was already quite a good fellow and would surely enter the kingdom of Heaven without any question. In any case, his courage and naiveté led him right into the middle of a big decision — a decision to walk with Jesus or not.
These two stories from Mark reveal that walking with Jesus is full of surprises and challenges. In one moment, Jesus shows compassion to children. In the next moment, Jesus challenges adults to be like children. But then, Jesus challenges the stranger (or Matthew's "young man") to give up all of those things that he puts before God and to follow him. God's gift is presented as free, but also as very demanding. Children (the young) are shown as people of great worth — people from whom adults can learn — but the stranger is shown as a person faced with one of the biggest decisions of his lifetime, and he is fearful of the challenge. These messages sound contradictory; they are messages of surprise and challenge!
We are not going to get simple messages and principles for youth ministry from the Jesus stories. The time of adolescence was not even a separate phase of life in Jesus' day; people were children, and then they were adults. But we can look through the Jesus stories to see how Jesus walked with people, and particularly, how he walked with the young. In the two stories we have just explored, the messages of surprise and challenge occurred while the disciples walked with Jesus. What surprises and challenges are in store for us as we walk with Jesus, and as we walk with the young people with whom Jesus walks?
WALKING WITH YOUTH
Let's turn now to walking with those youth. My lectures are based on a nine-year research project in youth ministry — a project of walking with youth. Other travelers on this journey with me were Kathi Breazeale, Christelle Estrada, Vernon Jahnke, Randy Litchfield, Russell Moy, and David White; we were a multicultural, multidenominational, and multiregional team. We were studying one Korean American church, two largely European American churches (one suburban and one rural), two Native American churches (one Protestant and one Roman Catholic), and one African American parish. The research journey began on a mountaintop and led us through wildly varied terrain as we studied youth ministry in six congregations, culturally and denominationally different from one another.
When I say that the journey began on a mountaintop, I mean that I began innocently page 52 enough with a dream of studying youth ministry in relation to culture. I had been involved in youth ministry in one way or another for more than thirty years, and I had a sense that some enormous gaps existed in the dominant understandings of youth and youth ministry. The absence of serious attention to youth in relation to their primary communities and cultures was shocking. I found denominational publishing houses limited in what they could or would do in relation to youth and culture, and this was not a favorite topic in youth ministry conferences either. What was this saying to our team? It was saying that a real gap exists, but the gap is one that large organizations (like mainline churches) are often not able either to see or to address. Perhaps the gap was also saying to us that people today are willing to ignore youth and the communities that nurture them, just as the disciples were willing to ignore the children whose families brought them to be blessed by Jesus.
To intensify my concerns as I sat on this mountaintop, I had been living and engaging with youth in the southwestern United States and Hawaii. In these regions, youth live in a visibly multicultural environment, and youth in one community know that their world is quite different from other communities. Further, adults in youth ministry kept saying to me that something different is needed from their denominations, both in understanding youth and in envisioning youth ministry.
As I first sat on the mountaintop, I had some glimpses of insight, but more was waiting to be discovered, and finding the new insights required that I journey many miles with youth and a team of researchers, journeying into many different cultural contexts and spending time with many different young people. To those young people, the team and I can only say thanks; words cannot express how grateful we are that those young people trusted us and walked with us.
From the mountaintop, our journey proceeded at first through a thick forest along an overgrown trail. The riches uncovered in the early parts of each study were dazzling, but they were so many that we literally did not see the forest for the trees. This was an intentional aspect of the research, because ethnogenic research, like ethnography, is intended to be what Clifford Geertz has called "thick description"; thus, we spent the first months of every study observing every detail that we could. We sought always to let the observations — the people — speak for themselves. We noticed when youth in the social activist United Church of Christ led a sit-in in their school, and we wondered what that meant about the youth and their passions. We listened to what those young people said about their actions and what adults in the same congregation said about their church's ministry. Whenever we were tempted to describe the forest prematurely, we called ourselves back to the trees. Our hope was to describe the forest more faithfully by taking account of as many trees as we could observe.
Through thick forests, the research team traveled also into farmlands ready for planting. Several times, we became excited by what we saw in the communities we studied. We were discovering diverse patterns of youth ministry in the various page 53 communities, and the potential in each pattern began to unfold. The experience was like looking onto broad vistas of farmland, seeing the patterns and recognizing the potential for planting and harvesting. One particularly good example happened as we listened to the voices of the youth in a small Lutheran church in rural Minnesota. They told story after story of praying to God; one young man told about how the people of the church had prayed for his father when he was critically injured in an accident. We heard what the youth were saying, and then we noticed that all through their church building were pictures of people at prayer. Behind the altar was a picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane; and in the much-traveled basement hallway was a reproduction of Durer's "Praying Hands." The youth, as they worshipped and played in this praying church, came to see prayer as central to Christian life. Prayer was visible in the pattern of their farmland, both literally and figuratively. In each congregation that we studied, we could discern such patterns, marking each church as a Christian community with a particular culture, but no two churches were alike.
Leaving the order of farmlands ready for planting, however, we had other moments on our journey with youth in which we felt as if we were walking on city streets filled with sounds and quick flashes of movement. The quiet order of the farmland was obscured by quick movements, and every insight changed almost as quickly as we discovered it. One of the dramatic moments of such change was when the research team was analyzing the field notes of the African American Roman Catholic parish. A conflict had emerged during mass one Sunday morning, and the team quickly analyzed this as a sign of a major problem in the parish. Two members of the research team, one Latina and the other African American, listened to the analysis for a time and then protested that the team was drawing a premature conclusion. They suggested that the spontaneous and open dispute in mass might actually be a common and healthy way of dealing with conflict in this particular community. The research team had to stop and rethink the symbols of harmony that we were taking for granted. We probed the questions further as research continued in that particular community, and the conclusions we finally drew resembled more of the perspective of the two protesters on our team.
This was only one moment when the research team became aware that we were imposing premature order on a community — that we were seeing farmland ready for planting when the operative metaphor was more like a city street filled with sounds and quick flashes of movement. In every community that we studied, whether rural or urban, we witnessed the quick movements associated with city life. The communities themselves were not static, and they sometimes surprised themselves as they responded to a tragedy in a church family or an event of vandalism in the church cemetery. Further, the insights of the research team were not static; we continually encountered new events or new angles of interpretation that shed new light on the neat patterns that were emerging.
Youth ministry does not stand still, and the key to understanding and enhancing page 54 youth ministry is not to get the picture just right. The picture will constantly change. The key is to develop the ability to discern patterns, to respond to movements, and to participate in the flow between structure and change. Youth ministry has to do with developing the skills of discernment and action — to know what is taking place at a given moment in time; to participate with youth in establishing appropriate patterns for that time and place; and to move with the movements of God and the currents of change.
This discussion leads to the last part of our research team's journey, and the most difficult part to describe. The image that commends itself is one of traveling through a hot desert dotted with prickly pears. Being a lover of deserts myself, I do not intend this to be a negative image, but it is indeed a strenuous one. The journey with youth began on a mountaintop, but the journey was a very demanding one. For one thing, the research itself was rigorous and time consuming. Further, youth leaders in local churches do not necessarily want to walk through the complexity that we were discovering. They might prefer a more simple guidance approach, which describes how to build up youth and their communities, or a prophetic approach, which describes what is wrong with youth and youth ministry and prescribes how to fix it. In a real sense, our walking with youth did offer guidance and prophecy, but we discovered them in an unconventional way. We approached our questions with youth rather than for them, and through living communities rather than over against them. In short, the research team tried to learn as much as possible from the youth and their communities and to take the risk that our favorite theories of youth ministry might be turned upside down.
As for the hot desert and prickly pears, we had many moments when the unconventionality and time intensity of our research became discouraging to us. Yet none of us had lost either the memory of that mountaintop or the thrill of adventures with youth through forests, farmlands, and cities. Through the periods of wandering in the desert, the young people themselves helped us see the beauty of the desert; and thus the youth, whom we had hoped to take to Jesus for a blessing, turned and blessed us along the road.
The youth and communities of our study are certainly not flawless, so turning to them for their wisdom is not an exercise in learning from the perfect and wise. However, the team itself, and you and I, are not flawless either. For us to march into churches, diagnose their problems, and propose solutions would be arrogant. The wisdom of our work comes from walking with youth and their communities, praying all the while for the wisdom and grace that comes only from God.
WISDOM FOR THE ROAD
Having considered the surprise and challenge of walking with Jesus and the wisdom of walking with youth, we turn now to packing our backpacks for the journey. With this in mind, I suggest three items that are vital for this journey with youth: an address book, a guidebook, and a cellular phone.page 55
The address book is needed because youth ministry takes place in community, and we need to be in touch with the youth's community in order to understand the possibilities and heartaches represented there. Likewise, the guidebook is needed because young people live in relationship to their culture or cultures — the beliefs, values, and actions of their people — whether they like those values or not. The young man in the opening story — the guy who recently graduated from high school and is confused about his future — is influenced by the culture of his family who are living near poverty and are all discouraged about their lives. The Tongan girls who attended the United Methodist Women's event with their mothers and aunts were comfortable in a gathering of women many years older than themselves because, in their Tongan culture, the elder generation is given special respect, and most events are intergenerational. We need a guidebook in our backpacks in order to learn more about these cultures in which youth live. But not everything is accessible through pre-written address books and guidebooks. That is why we also need a cellular phone, so that we can be available to communicate with the young people when they decide to communicate — to experience their vitality and vulnerability.
To these three items we now turn for a closer look in order to be packed and ready for the journey of walking with youth.
THE ADDRESS BOOK: YOUTH AND THEIR COMMUNITIES
Descriptions or definitions of youth are shaped by the communities and cultures in which young people live — communities influenced by racial/ethnic, religious, social class, regional, and generational cultures. In some Pacific Island cultures, for example, the word "youth" applies to young people either until they reach their mid-thirties or until they marry. In other cultures, the time of youth begins at thirteen and ends when the young person reaches twenty. The period of youth not only varies in relation to broad cultural practices, but also in relation to particular communities or families. In some communities, young people are forced to enter adulthood during young teen years to take responsibility and to help their families survive, to rear children of their own, or to live on the streets with no family at all with whom to survive. In other communities, young people are privileged to prolong their youth while they complete graduate and postgraduate education or live experimentally with jobs and experiences that require them to remain dependent on their families. In short, the youth years are a time of transition, and the shape of the transition will be influenced by the communities in which the youth live.
But what is a community? A simple definition of community is a group of people living together in the same environment. We can thus speak of cities or towns or neighborhoods as communities. In a similar sense, we can speak of a community of faith as a group of people who share a relationship with God and one another within a parish or congregation. Community can also be defined as a page 56 group of people with common experiences, interests, or values, such as a political or athletic community. Or we can speak of community idealistically as a group of people who are close and able to share intimately with one another.
HOPES FOR COMMUNITY LIFE
Young people live in all of these communities, though some may experience precious little of the more idealistic form. From a Christian perspective, we usually hope that youth, in all of their various communities, will experience the love of God, will come to see themselves as children of God, and will find opportunity to participate in the redemptive work of God. As our research team walked with youth in six different congregations, we realized that many young people experience love and freedom to be themselves in their churches. Korean American young people told us, for example, that their youth group was the only place that they could share both their frustrations with overly demanding parents who wanted them to act more Korean and, at the same time, their frustrations with schoolmates who rejected them because they were too Korean.
CHALLENGES IN COMMUNITY LIFE
The Christian community lives not only with hopes for more ideal community life, but also with some of its more discouraging realities. Once, when I was working with a junior high youth group in my church, the young people in both the junior and senior high groups decided to prepare a presentation for their parents and other church members to celebrate the end of their school year. The junior highs, eager at first, had lots of ideas. After a time, however, they became frustrated because they decided that their ideas were not good enough; also, they had heard rumors of a very good presentation by the senior highs. Since the whole idea of this event had originally come from our younger group, I was perplexed. I finally stopped trying to encourage and support them, and I asked what the problem was. They burst loose. "No one will like what we do; no one ever does," they said. "In fact, no one in this church even notices us. We are not cute like the children, and we are not seen as responsible and important like the senior highs. We are just in between." That was the moment in which they began to envision what they wanted to communicate to the adults in our church. They created a videotape and called it "The In-Betweeners."
What are the challenges in community life for young people who are in-betweeners, whatever their age? Three challenges seem particularly obvious: first, to be with youth as they face the challenge of being in between; second, to mentor youth as they seek to live healthy lives in communities that are not necessarily healthy themselves; and third, to encourage youth to challenge exploitative and non-supportive communities, such as the advertising community (as it sells sex and commercialism), public schools, and even churches when they manipulate, ignore, and belittle youth.page 57
These challenges are particularly awesome when we recognize how many young people live in cities, towns, and schools that offer little opportunity for them to form into supportive, life-giving communities or to experience mentoring by adults. Such realities are particularly discouraging when one considers that, in the absence of support communities, youth problems with drugs, violence, pregnancies outside of marriage, and so forth are more prevalent. On the other hand, when support communities are available, the incidence of these potentially destructive experiences is lower. Certainly these realities lay down an awesome challenge for the youth leaders of our churches, who have the opportunity to build community life that is not only supportive, but also life giving and life sustaining.
THE GUIDEBOOK: YOUTH AND THEIR CULTURES
To say that youth live in relation to culture sounds obvious, but very little attention has been given to this aspect of youth ministry. We need a guidebook to culture for our backpacks as we walk with youth, but few recently published books attend to culture at all, much less to ethnic-cultural uniqueness or diversity. Notable exceptions are Charles R. Foster and Grant S. Shockley's Working with Black Youth, Donald Ng's Asian Pacific American Youth Ministry, and William Myers's Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry. 2 In addition, Michael Warren has attended to the broader United States culture in relation to youth in this country, focusing on such cultural expressions as youth music, commercial targeting of youth populations, school structures, militarism, and so forth. 3
So what is culture? One could say metaphorically that culture is like a giant sea in which people swim; people are surrounded and immersed in it. Drawing from this metaphor, churches can be understood as distinctive pools within larger bodies of water — cultures within cultures. Culture can be described, most simply, as the beliefs, practices, and values of a people. Thus, we can speak of culture in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, geographical region, or generation, and all of these various forms of culture influence youth and are influenced by them.
Cultures themselves are always changing, of course, and some are more discrete than others. Further, various cultures and subcultures are in conflict with one another, and youth often get caught in the middle, as the Korean American youth describe their experience of being caught between the Korean culture of their parents and the American culture of their schools. In light of these complexities, the pictures in our guidebooks need to be multifaceted and open to change. Even so, we need to persist, seeking to understand whatever we can.
The importance of cultural awareness is evident in the simple stories with which I began. The comfort of the young Tongan women in the large gathering of older women is easy to misunderstand if we do not know something of the intergenerational culture in which the Tongan people live. They are quick to explain page 58 their culture if an outsider asks questions because, as immigrant people, they are more conscious of their cultural distinctiveness than people who have lived in the United States for generations, especially those who are European American and have been part of the dominant white culture, blending diverse European backgrounds. On the other hand, culture is at play in less obvious ways in the story of the European American youth who was curious about eternal life. He lived in what he called "Southern Baptist country," where he expected to hear certain beliefs, and not others, about eternal life. The fact that Southern Baptists themselves actually believe many different things about eternal life is not the issue; the culture of this young man's community in Alabama carried a certain ethos that is characteristically described as Southern Baptist and associated with certain patterns of belief, practices, and values. The young man was aware of that ethos and its influence on his own understanding of Christian beliefs. This is the kind of understanding that we seek with a guidebook or two in our backpacks.
THE CELLULAR TELEPHONE: YOUTH VITALITY AND VULNERABILITY
And now we turn, finally, to the cellular telephone. I do not even like these modern gizmos, so why would I encourage you to put one in your backpack? Certainly people were able to walk with Jesus, and still are, without the help of modern electronics. For lack of a better metaphor, however, the cellular phone represents the possibility of instant communication with people at any time or in any place — communication in a world where people are increasingly distant from one another and increasingly wary of others who are different from them.
The Reverend Cecil Murray repeats one question again and again with youth in Los Angeles, "The Mother of the World says to us, as so many mothers say to their children, 'Why can't you children get along?'" Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, was one of the pastors who stood on the streets on April 29, 1992, while the city burned; even now, he continues to meet with gang members and to ask them this question, "Why can't you get along?" Murray then answers the question he believes should be asked instead — "Why must you get along?" — with this answer: "Necessity!" We have no choice — youth have no choice — but to get along. We are all like porcupines who, to keep warm, have to get close to one another, despite the spikes that are dangerous and threatening. 4 We have no choice because separated we cannot survive. We have to get along; it is a necessity.
This is the world of youth — people who are full of life and yearning for life. Young people live in a sea of culture, and cultures within cultures, yet wherever they turn, people are not getting along. The waves of the giant sea of culture are rough and hazardous. In such a world, two qualities of youth are very apparent — their vitality and their vulnerability — and that is why we need a cellular telephone.page 59
VITALITY OF YOUTH
The vitality of youth is at once obvious and fragile. Carol Gilligan and her colleagues have discovered, for example, how the boldness of young adolescent girls can turn to reticence and loss of self-confidence within a short period time. 5 Certainly, relationships among young people can change dramatically during the teenage years, evoking fears, disappointments, exhilaration, or loneliness. Further, biological changes are often a physical reminder to youth of their vitality — changes that open wonderful feelings as well as fears and difficult decisions regarding relationships and, in some cases, horrifying memories of abuse. Finally, meaningful questions can take on vivid significance for young people who are undergoing all of these other changes and, at the same time, trying to make significant decisions for their lives. These decisions may be whether or not to have a baby, what vocation to choose, what kind of education or job training to seek, or whether or not to participate in violent activity. Whatever they are, the decisions may be fully as life determining as the decision of the stranger who came running to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.
VULNERABILITY OF YOUTH
The vitality of youth is very much connected with their vulnerability because the very yearning for life that is so often at the heart of young people's actions makes them vulnerable to risks in their world. Although this vulnerability is commonly described by the term "youth at risk," our research team resisted that language. Certainly youth cannot be considered safe from risk, for they are vulnerable to disruptive and destructive patterns in their families, support communities, economic situations, and schools. Despite their vulnerability, however, the problem with identifying "youth at risk" is that the term puts some young people into a category that itself becomes an obstacle to their full life and development. In fact, all youth face risks that heighten their vulnerability; even the youth who live with the most devastating combination of risk factors have within them hopes and strengths that need to be appreciated and supported.
We are on more solid ground when we identify risk factors that face the younger generation in the United States, including those who are involved in religious communities. The Search Institute study, for example, sheds light on risk factors faced by youth in mainline Protestant denominations. Among the mainline Protestant youth whom they studied, 66 percent of the seventh and eighth graders and 80 percent of the eleventh and twelfth graders experience one or more of the at-risk indicators (listed in the study as depression; thoughts of suicide; alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine use; aggression; theft; and sexual intercourse). In addition, 15 percent of the younger teens and 40 percent of the older teens experience three or more of the at-risk indicators. 6 These figures and others suggest that risk is everywhere, and we need to think about risk in a more page 60 holistic way, recognizing the way in which risks affect all youth to some degree.
A helpful perspective on risk comes from Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern, who speak of risk as the "ecological hazards in the lives of youth at risk." 7 One could build upon their idea by thinking of risk factors as those influences that upset the ecological balance of the giant sea of culture — an imbalance that affects all who swim in the sea, but affects people differently, and some more than others.
Youth do face rare opportunities and dangerous possibilities as they walk through their young years of life, just as Mark's stranger (or Matthew's "rich young man") walked into rare opportunity and dangerous possibility when he ran up to Jesus. Sometimes young people are not so aware of their opportunities, like the high school graduate in the opening story who was confused and discouraged about his future. In his present situation, he could face self-destruction, whether by drugs or depression; on the other hand, his very courage in admitting discouragement could lead to awareness of new opportunities and decisions.
Certainly the youth with whom the research team walked in our journey revealed to us that they were significant human beings, competent to contribute invaluably to their church and school communities (and sometimes far beyond those); they were also powerful and virtuous. Let us remember, however, that the rich young man in the Jesus story was also significant, competent, powerful, and virtuous, and yet he was faced with a decision that he could not make, so he turned and walked away sorrowfully. As we walk with youth, we will be reminded again and again that we and they are also walking with Jesus; through Jesus, we and they will be faced with the decisions of our lives. To be with the youth as they face those decisions is a privilege. God bless you as you walk!