Todays Adolescents and Your Church, Part 1
Last week I spoke at a seminary class in my city on the topic of spiritual formation in adolescents.
The content was well received, so I thought I’d share a few of the big ideas in the post, in the hopes that this will be helpful in your churches as you seek to serve and disciple students and families.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but this isn’t the same America you grew up in.
Depending on your age, (I grew up in the 80s), our culture probably feels a little foreign.
I’m not the type to preach, “We need to get back to the good ole days!” but I do believe we need to be aware of our culture and adjust our ministry practices and focuses.
So, here are a few observations on what’s going on in the world of today’s adolescents.
What I am observing is that parents are more disengaged from their teenagers than ever before.
Most parents are almost entirely removed from the spiritual development of their teenagers.
Why? I think the biggest reason is that they don’t know how.
It wasn’t modeled well for them and many parents are hoping they can outsource this role to their church.
I drop off my kid on Sundays and Wednesday and you’ll make them a strong Jesus follower.
The result of this reality is an adolescent population that is mostly biblically illiterate because churches and student ministries, even when they are strong, simply don’t have enough time with kids to develop a biblical worldview.
A second observation about the home: Kids are often an extension of their parent’s sense of identity.
I believe we are experiencing a crisis of lost-identity in our culture.
Identity has always been a core issue for humanity because when we divorce our sense of identity from our creator, we become unmoored from our designed starting place.
I also believe our culture is experiencing a crisis of identity because of the maturation of self-actualization psychology.
Identity is no longer tied to community or societal duty.
It has everything to do with me—who I am, what I do and what people think about me.
The end result is that adult parents are more adrift in their sense of identity than ever before.
Because of this, we are experiencing a generation of parents who are desperate for a sense of identity, raising a generation of kids who are equally desperate for a sense of identity.
And, the parents are all too often attempting to validate their own sense of identity through their kids.
This is leading to an enormous sense of pressure on the kids—a pressure to perform, to achieve, to be good enough for their parents’ approval.
This reality is a key player in the rise of stress, anxiety and depression in adolescents.
I’ll say more about this later.
So, a key influence in the world of today’s adolescent is the home, where they often receive little spiritual influence and feel enormous pressure to perform.
The adolescents of today are digital natives.
This is a phrase that sociologists have been using for a few years now that means that today’s teenagers and young adults have never lived in a world without the internet.
For them, social media has always been a thing.
When older generations complain about the evils of social media, to a teenager it sounds like we are complaining about something as ordinary and necessary as roads.
Sure, there are good roads and bad roads but why in the world would we complain about the existence of roads?!?
So, how does being digital natives impact adolescents?
Let’s start with voice.
Through the internet and social media, students and young adults have always had a voice in their world.
They post, and then people “like” and comment.
They have always been free to voice their feedback and opinions on YELP and Amazon.
Their voice has always mattered.
There really isn’t a, “Be quiet until you are older” with the younger generations.
That is, until they enter the church.
We haven’t quite figured out how to deal with this reality.
This could be one of the reasons that young adults are bailing on church.
I can imagine them saying, “My voice matters everywhere else...I’m out."
A second implication of being digital natives is pressure, stress and anxiety.
When I was in late middle school, I was bullied pretty badly.
I’m talking about kids following me as I walked home from school, yelling profanities, making up obnoxious names, and throwing stones at me.
It was pretty terrible.
If you’re wondering, I’m doing ok.
Thanks for asking.
It was part of growing up. Many of us experienced the stress of the social arena in middle school and high school.
Here’s the difference between what I experienced and what today’s adolescents experience.
When I walked in the door of my home.
It was over. I was safe. Home was a haven.
Now, here’s the difference between the 80's and the 2010's...because of social media, there is no haven.
These kids are never out of the social arena and all the pressure and stress that comes with it.
These kids go to bed with their phones in their hands.
This reality has led to a significant spike in anxiety, depression and even suicide.
Instagram and Snapchat are no friends to the development of self-worth in teenagers.
As an older adult, it’s tempting to say, “Yeah, we all went through that. Toughen up.”
You have to understand, you did not go through what today’s adolescents are going through.
In some ways, they have it easier but in some ways they have it much harder.
And, they need our help navigating the minefield.
The church can be of immense help here.
So, one way that culture is impacting adolescents is through social media and the internet.
These kids are digital natives.
And although I’m oversimplifying things, this translates into an expectation to be listened to and a huge increase in anxiety.
A second important influence of culture is in the areas of pluralism and tolerance.
In my opinion, this comes with a huge positive and a huge negative.
Let’s start with the negative.
The very idea of evangelism is anathema to most adolescents.
Why? Because it requires that you attempt to convince someone that what they believe and how they are living is wrong.
These days, telling anyone that anything about them isn’t wonderful and beautiful as seen as an attack.
We have become a culture that values validation more than truth.
So, good luck with traditional evangelism strategies here.
Now, the huge positive.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a generation of people better equipped to share the message of Jesus with people who come from a different background or hold to a different worldview.
Most adolescents of today have always lived in the tension of friends who look, live and believe differently.
They value diversity.
For example, while many older Christians would struggle to engage someone in the LGBT community without saying something insensitive or offensive, many of today’s adolescents are quite comfortable.
They inherently possess the sensitivity and language to navigate just about any culturally complex conversation.
What I’m saying is that when an adolescent comes to understand that their friends need Jesus...the result could be extraordinary.
You may be wondering, “So what do we do with all this?”
How exactly should we adjust our ministry practices to effectively reach and disciple today’s adolescents.
Well, I have some thoughts but you’ll have to wait until next week. Until then, I hope this has been helpful.
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