Reclaiming the Church’s Young

by John W. Oberdeck

Never say to a teenager, “When I was your age …,” because you never were. You never were a teenager in 2007.

No matter how loudly adults might want to object to this, the truth remains that no one at work in youth ministry today can completely relate to being their age in this age.

0607reclaimyouthstory.jpgSo, just how different are teenagers today from teenagers in times past? And how different is the culture in which they live?

How parents, schools, and congregations go about answering questions like these profoundly shapes congregational ministry among young people.

Over the past several years, Chap Clark, director of the youth and family cohort at Fuller Theological Seminary, has conducted extensive research into today’s adolescent. His conclusions, presented in his groundbreaking work, Hurt—Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, are significant for anyone who cares about kids. Clark served as the keynote speaker for the annual Youth Ministry Symposium for youth leaders sponsored by LCMS Youth Ministry in January.

As he dramatically redefines the traditional understanding of adolescent development, Clark argues that today’s adolescents feel abandoned by the adult world. According to Clark, adults have abdicated their responsibility to guide teens into adulthood. “Mid-adolescents” (the term Clark uses for high-school students) feel betrayed and alone. Even the most well-adjusted star athlete with the 4.0 GPA feels used.

“Everyone has an agenda for me, but no one cares about me, no one understands,” could be said by just about any teen.

How have adults abandoned mid-adolescents? The very things that are supposed to nurture mid-adolescents into late adolescence and adulthood have been hijacked. Schools are institutions for the benefit of teachers and parents, not students. Families suffer multiple fractures as parents seek what’s best for themselves, not their children. Even athletic competition is morphed into vicarious experiences for adults.

Left to raise themselves, mid-adolescents sort themselves into tight-knit clusters based on a social pecking order. Different from cliques, clusters develop intense loyalties. Within the cluster, teens feel accepted simply for who they are. The cluster understands, protects, cares for, and supplies teens with a much-needed support system.

Clusters redefine the traditional “generation gap,” better described today as a chasm. Hunkered down in their chasm, mid-adolescents have created what Clark calls “the world beneath.” Here, teens develop their own language, dress, sexual mores, and systems of right and wrong that would stun most adults.

Most adults don’t know the world beneath exists because mid-adolescents have become masters at deceiving adults into thinking everything is OK. Deep inside, however, most adults know that today’s teen experience is not OK.

“Well, at least in the church things are different,” I console myself by saying.

But are things different?

Clark suggests that even the church has abandoned teens. Congregations supply their teens with teen services and youth pastors, which give the adult congregation permission not to associate with youth. Other congregations are satisfied if teens just show up once in awhile before they disappear into college, modeling what Clark terms the “show up — sit still — shut up” approach to youth ministry.

Teens can feel abandoned by the church when they hear from adults who feel it is their place to tell young people what kinds of music and liturgy they should or should not use for worship, or that God does not approve of some worship styles.

0607reclaimstoryboy.jpgInitially, I bristle when I hear comments indicating that the church has abandoned young people. After all, I know of many congregations that are deeply committed to youth ministry. And the teens I know seem to be pretty well-adjusted.

Collectively, the youth and late adolescents I generally encounter in the church and at Concordia University Wisconsin, where I teach, appear to be a group of upbeat, well-educated, willing-to-organize, and eager-to-accomplish-great-things bunch of kids.

But after encountering the research, I have to ask if Clark is right. Have kids just learned how to survive in the adult world? Have we abandoned our kids, even in the church?

All the research I read supports Clark’s conclusions, not my preconceptions. Shocking reports of dreadful behaviors by urban, suburban, and rural youth hit the news channels with painful regularity. What if my positive perception of youth is simply evidence of how incredibly effective the world beneath has become in shielding the true teen experience? A simple sampling of teen profiles—even those of “good kids” at MySpace or Facebook—reveals lives I don’t know. What if the few teens I really know are simply the survivors or the brilliant couriers, double agents who travel between the adult world and the world beneath?

Even if adults don’t believe that youth are abandoned, marginalized, and ignored by the church, it is significant that so many (and Clark’s research focused on churched youth) mid-adolescents believe differently. Their perception is their reality, and if their perception is the reality, then what? How do we change their reality? What can caring adults in the church do in the face of this startling reality?

For starters, adults who care can help the culture—at least the culture of the church—stop abandoning them.  We can sit on the stairs to the world beneath (because we can’t go down there) and patiently wait—until they know we can be trusted. We can listen to them, learn from them, and when the time is right, talk with them about the forgiveness of Jesus—for them and for us.

I know that God’s Word teaches us to “train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6 NIV).

The psalmist says, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me” (Ps. 25:7 NIV). God doesn’t remember, but forgets.

I have seen God’s Law work in the lives of teens, and I’ve witnessed the power of the Gospel.

We can speak the Word to them. We can lead them to the means of grace, and we can introduce them anew to the only reality that can ease their loneliness, found in Christ and shared in the fellowship of the church.

Effective youth ministry is that which sees young people where they are “stuck” in the chasm of mid-adolescence and does not leave them there! Effective youth ministry helps them grow to maturity, not just developmentally, but in their faith, which is the true source of growth and nurture. This work is vitally important.


Youth: A Precious Gift

Chap Clark’s book, Hurt, presents us with a real challenge.  What is the role of the national church body to nurture young people?

We have a distinguished history in youth ministry. Our first youth group was established in May 1848. C.F.W. Walther, first LCMS president—and considered by many to be a pioneer in American youth ministry—once told his seminary class: “You cannot use your time to better advantage than by serving well the young people of the congregation.”

The Walther League (1893–1968), The Board for Youth Ministry (1968– 92), and Lutheran Youth Fellowship (1979–present) all demonstrate the Synod’s commitment to help congregations provide effective ministry to and with teens and young adults. The DCS Youth Ministry Office today is responsible for the National Youth Gathering, servant events, the LYF organization, thESource, and a number of other programs and resources.

God challenges the adult church to care for its children and youth (Prov. 22:6). To be sure, God has blessed the LCMS with tremendous opportunities for youth ministry, and He has provided the means to accomplish significant things through self-supporting resources and events.  The National Youth Gathering is our primary funding source. But isn’t it ironic that our youth provide the funds it takes to do LCMS youth ministry?

The adult church must demonstrate its responsibility to walking with youth, and this includes financial support. LCMS Youth Ministry is working to establish new funding resources to provide for the future.

Our children and youth are too precious a resource to abandon to our culture. Let’s continue the legacy of caring for youth in our church.

    —Rev. Terry K. Dittmer, LL.D.
Director, LCMS Youth Ministry


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