How Do We Help Youth Doubt Their Doubts?

Could it be for those of us who work with youth in progressive churches that we need to nudge our students–particularly our high school students–toward the acceptance of things they cannot see more than we presently do?

Youth in the kinds of churches I serve are quite comfortable expressing doubt about some of Jesus’ claims and teachings. That’s good and healthy, and I don’t want to change it. One of the most valuable things we do in youth ministry is create a safe, welcoming space for teenagers to say of the faith, “I don’t understand” or even “I don’t like it.” Let’s keep doing that.

When a 12th grader said of Jesus’ warnings to repent in Luke 13, “I don’t agree” I said, “Good” without even thinking. I can work with that.

But if part of our task as stewards of adolescent faith formation is to carefully push teenagers beyond the conventions of the faith they have grown up with so that they own it for themselves, then a 100% celebration of every utterance of doubt and skepticism doesn’t go far enough. In progressive congregations, doubt is conventional; the faithful are encouraged to regard faith claims with a critical eye. It’s a convention I love, but it’s a convention. I think we have to help youth recognize doubt as a feature of the faith tradition they’re in and to critically grapple with it for themselves–to doubt doubt.

Might we need to start insisting that our older adolescents recognize their expressions of doubt as things that, ironically, have been uncritically adopted?

How do we help youth doubt their doubts?



Is The Truth Still Out There for Teenagers?

Kenda Creasy Dean wrote youth ministry books in the early 2000’s in which she heralded The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as paradigms of discipleship for postmodern teens: insatiably curious and totally cool with mystery and ambiguity. Youth, she insisted, related to the enthusiasm for the unexplainable typified by the paranormal drama far more than the quest for logical certainty embodied by a lot of church life.

Dean’s “The-Truth-Is-Out-There” enthusiasm for the show actually made me a viewer; I had completely opted out of the phenomenon when the show was running and only started watching in 2008. I watched all nine seasons in under a year, and I thought Dean was totally right.

I also thought the X-Files’ mythology had more to offer than a philosophical posture. The story’s engine is a pair of investigators committed to unearthing the truth in the face of intensely motivated violent opposition from the forces of institutional authority. That feels even more timely to me now that when I first binge-watched the show and made its theme my ringtone.

The X-Files has relaunched, and I badly want it to have retained its dark conspiratorial posture, because I think that is the contribution we need now, in the day of government-poisoned water and police cover ups.

I’ve watched the first episode, and I’m not super enthused.

I wonder how Kenda Creasy Dean feels about it.


Treating teenagers with respect goes a long way.

Respect starts with appreciation and interest. Respect minus appreciation is obligation. Respect minus interest is politeness. People can feel the difference.

I’m not sure the teenagers I’ve worked with have a ton of adults in their lives who are permitted to appreciate them and be interested in them. Coaches, teachers, tutors, youth pastors–all of us have a stake in the performance of the teens we’re working with. If we’re not careful, those stakes can stifle appreciation and corrupt interest, so that students become means to our professional ends.

Here’s a test question: if a teenager can’t come to any of our classes, practices, rehearsals, or meetings, are we still actively interested in how they are experiencing the world? Are we working to make space for them to explore that? That space is invaluable, and none of us are very good at creating it ourselves.

The Bro Code. Ugh.

A college student I know is of late enthralled with The Bro Code. It’s a website and a book by the fictional Barney Stinson of the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”  But to hear my collegian friend speak of it, The Bro Code is a movement, a way of being that demands complete obedience.

“A Bro will answer the phone call of another bro at any time of day for any reason.”

“A Bro never tickles another bro.”

“If a Bro gets a dog, it must be at least as tall as his knee when fully grown.”

The Bro Code’s appeal to my friend feels like more than entertainment, and I expect that is true of most of the adolescent and post-adolescent guys who claim The Bro Code for themselves and who quote it over beers as a definitive moral guide.

That’s troubling to me, because The Bro code is 184 tenets of sexist, homophobic, fraternity-fueled stupidity. Its vision of masculinity is exceedingly shallow. It’s center of gravity is the responsibilities A Bro owes to his fellow Bros to help (or at least not hinder) them getting laid.

“Bros only comment on fellow a bellow bro’s fashion choice if that choice will affect the bro’s ability to get laid.”

“A bro may only ever stop another bro from hooking up with a girl if, and only if, he is 100% sure that said girl is in fact a dude.”

“A bro does not cock-block another bro for any reason.”

That this is the bar for masculine identity and performance that young men today might aspire to is utterly depressing.

I think my friend could see the disappointment in my face as he recited these maxims. Confused, he said, “What?”

“You are so much more than a bro,” is all I could tell him.

Please God let’s give the young men in our youth groups, churches, schools, and families a bigger, more daring vision of what it means to be a significant human being in the world than The Bro Code.


In Defense of Youth Group

A post made the rounds last week advocating “blowing up” the youth group model of youth ministry. I enthusiastically shared it with some colleagues. Now, several days after I first read and shared it, I don’t agree with it. Here’s why.

  1. The youth in my congregation actually yearn for youth group

The argument is with “youth groups that are silos apart from the intergenerational nature of the larger work of a local church.” But the youth in my congregation yearn for a peer network where they experience hospitality, grace, and transformation, in contrast to what they experience at school and on the soccer field. The church youth group is where they find that.

Critically, there are adults in those teenage gatherings. The youth group is an intergenerational community, only it proceeds on the terms of the teens, not the adults. Adults are invited to participate as accompanists: to share the time and space with the gathered youth, to listen to them, to learn about them, and to grow in their love for them as children of God.

2. You can change youth group without blowing it up

Rather than the weekly youth group, Abbott wants to see youth leaders “gathering youth around the passions or experiences of young people with others in the congregation of various ages who have either similar passions or expertise.” Yes, yes, and yes.

But that alternative can be a supplement to a regular, welcoming space in the church for youth. In fact, I don’t see why those alternative gathering of young people and adults with aligning passions and expertise would not take the shape very similar to that of a . . . wait for it . . . youth group.

3. Working with teenagers is not for everyone

Further, the alternative Abbott is advocating “demands that every person be invested in the lives of young people in the church and not silo them off to a professional in the basement of the church with a couple of cool couches.”

But I don’t know of any church ministry in which every person is invested. Not the choir, not the property committee, and not the youth group. Part of our work as youth ministers needs to be helping adults in the congregation discern gifts for working with youth and then inviting them into that work. It’s not for everybody.

4. Deconstruction is not, by itself, minstry

We’re better at deconstruction than construction. That’s my worry.

Mainline Protestant denominations decided decades ago that it was better ecclesiology to include youth in the life of the whole church, rather than sequestering them into their own “youth ministry” silo. Theologically, that was a sound decision. What it produced, however, was a mass deconstruction of denominational resources for youth ministry that left nothing to take its place that actually accomplished the goals of a youth-inclusive ecclesiology.

If the youth group model is to paint an unused church room in neon and throw in pizza once a week, then, yes, blow that thing up. But that’s not what I’m seeing from my youth ministry colleagues. Most of their youth groups are thoughtful, welcoming spaces where adults are present to pay attention to the lives of teens.

They Can’t Get That Anywhere

I have a nagging critique that dogs a lot of my ministry work, especially work with youth: not Christian enough.

That our relationships with youth must issue in distinctively Christian expressions, like prayer or devotional lessons–and that interactions with youth that lack those expressions are fine but not really “ministry”–is a weight that I think a lot of us are bearing for no good reason. It’s the “They could get ‘relationships’ anywhere” dig.

The problem with that thinking is that trusting and reciprocal relationships with adults who aren’t their parents and aren’t paid to spend time with them can’t, for most youth, be had anywhere. We have multiplied the number of adults in relationship with teenagers to include coaches, teachers, tutors, scout leaders, college advisers, and so on. Yet all of those adults, in addition to being paid for their time with youth, have an agenda for them. It’s a good agenda, sure. But it’s an agenda.

Youth ministry should offer teenagers relationships with adults and a community of peers that wants nothing more of them than their very human Child-of-God selves. Share the gospel with them, yes. Study Scripture. Pray, please. But let’s stop banging our head against our Bibles if our gatherings with some youth don’t contain those distinctively Christian expressions.

We are the distinctively Christian expression. Us and our theological vision that squints to see teenagers as God sees them: inherently valuable and worth a universe of attention and time.

Nobody is saying this more clearly today than Andy Root.

The Key To Youth Ministry

Youth ministers take an active interest in teenagers for who they are, and not for some other purpose, say, fixing their problem behaviors or getting them to church. The thing teenagers should get from church if not from any place else is an adult or two who is genuinely interested in them as a human being.

To the marketplace, teens are consumers. To their schools, teens are producers of test scores. To their sports teams, teens are players. To the church, teens are beloved Human Beings created in God’s image.

It seems to me that, beyond their families (if they’re lucky) nothing else in youths’ lives relates to them this way. Not even other youth. Where else do teenagers encounter a community that recognizes the image of God in them and makes a habit of pointing it out?

This is no specialized skill. In fact, the best way for churches to minister to youth in this way is to minister to adults this way. If church is a place where people give to one another the gift of an active interest in one anothers’ lives, youth will benefit along with the adults, and they’ll learn how to share that gift in the process.

(This is an ancillary benefit of Tapestry. Youth observe a community of youth ministers working with each other as collaborators, peers, and friends.)

What if the key to youth ministry in this era is nothing more than attention and genuine interest?

Progressive Youth Ministry Is Not Safe

Progressive Christians are kidding themselves in believing that their youth are somehow insulated from the influence of the more aggressive forms of conservative cultural Christianity (like this).

Teens’ disillusionment with Christianity will include its inclusive expressions too.

I know youth who have grown up in churches that have long welcomed LGBT persons into membership and leadership who nonetheless feel alienated from Christianity as an exclusive thing. These youth have been schooled in social justice in their Sunday school classes, and yet see the church as something that is at odds with their emerging sense of injustice in the world.

I wonder if our talk has come up short. I wonder if we’ve failed these youth in explaining how our church is different from the ones their friends go to, where you can’t be out and every word of the Bible is preached literally, while not demanding of them the kind of giving of themselves that characterizes Christian discipleship.

Faith, conservative or progressive, has to be lived in ways that stretch us to experience God’s heart for the poor and suffering and God’s thirst for justice in the world. Absent that, it won’t matter to anyone.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T The Teenagers

I met up with some 9th graders at a diner this week. They arrived before I did, and when I slid into the booth one of them told me under her breath that the waitress had given them the stink eye when they came in. There were six of them.

“No she didn’t.”

“Yes she did.” We dropped it.

But then one of them didn’t get the iced tea she ordered. She told me she hadn’t got it, and I said, “So tell the waitress, not me” (one of my hidden agendas in meeting youth at a diner is to join them in a space where they have to interact with adults–as adults). So she raised her hand. Like a 9th grader.

After several minutes of hand raising, she complained to me that the waitress kept looking at her but not coming over. I said I’m sure the waitress hadn’t seen her yet, but I started watching. A few more minutes and no response. Finally, I decided to get involved, and I raised my own hand. The waitress came right over.

Now, there are much bigger problems one can face than being ignored at a diner, and there are very good reasons for restaurant staff to feel intense irritation with teenagers in their place of work. They’re loud. They don’t spend much money. They sure as Hell don’t tip. As an 11th grader explained to me the next day, “I’m ordering french fries, and I’m sitting here for 45 minutes. But I have a girlfriend, so you can’t make me leave!”

Still, it’s an ugly experience for young people in adult society, glared at or simply ignored.

I would love for my church to be a manifestation of adult society that welcomes teenagers, that sees them and validates them. Teens–all teens: not just the ones we’ve baptized and taught in Sunday school–should get the message from us that they’re wanted and important for no other reason than that they’re there and they’re them. You know, the way we try to treat adults.

We’re good about this in some ways and less good in others. Clearly the kids who drop by the church after school feel welcomed, and they know there’s at least one adult there who likes them for them.

But we also have this sign on the property that says, “Thou Shalt Not Skateboard.” It’s an insurance thing, I know. But I hate it. We’re supposed to chase off skateboarders whenever we see them, but I’ve been completely non-compliant with that expectation for seven years. Once, I approached a skateboarder on our campus just to introduce myself, but the moment I said “Hello” he grabbed his board and fled, clearly assuming the worst about my intentions. The sign had done its work. Kind of.

Let’s look for ways to welcome our community’s teenagers and treat them like important grown ups.

The Diner

Yesterday one of my two after-school youth groups met at a diner because Tuesday is the only afternoon they’re all available and Tuesday is when I take my daughter to ballet down the street from that diner. Nine of us loudly took up the booth along the back wall, gulping shakes and chili cheese fries and generally making an unholy ruckus.

The youth arrived before I did, and so they had time to explain to a woman with a teenager daughter at an adjacent table that they were a church youth group. Which is funny. Two of them come to our church.

When I sat down the woman approached me and asked which church we were from. I told her, but then qualified that “church youth group” designation in a stammering, egg-headed way that none of the youth would do. They don’t hesitate to identify themselves as a church group, so why should I?

The meaning people make out of the work the church puts out into the world isn’t up to the church. I’m repeatedly surprised by the meaning people impart to things that I dismiss as routine church programs. Maybe the church isn’t the best judge of its meaning to the world.