So I watch dads. More specifically, I watch guys who have kids – which isn’t quite the same thing – and I watch for two things: First, what are they doing with their kids – especially what can I learn from them – and second, how well does it work?
The “how well does it work” part is the tough one. I watch the kids for that one. How do they react to him? Especially, how do they do in the long run? As they grow up, do they turn into responsible (even fun-loving) adults? Or do they stay children, but in adult-size bodies.
I watch that child-to-adult transition pretty closely. I don’t think we do that very well as a culture. I can’t tell you the number of kids that I’ve watched who follow a particular pattern: they show every sign of being ideal kids during their teenage years: they have responsible jobs, they are involved in responsible things like scouting or youth group or the like, and they seem to be enjoying life. They appear to be making the transition from dependence to independence really well. Except they’re not.
There comes a point in the lives of some of these “responsible kids” where they just seem to blow up. They may run away from home, or turn up pregnant, sprout lots of tattoos and piercing, or develop a drug or alcohol addiction. If it happens, the meltdown seems to come just about at the point where they were getting ready to make the jump from “adolescent” to “adult.” They make it to adulthood, but they lost traction and crashed going around that last curve.
That tells me that something’s gone haywire: somehow it took something violent to make that final transition into adulthood.
I’ve talked to some of those kids, after their crash, and there seems to be a trend: they were being “adult-like” but they were doing it for someone else, usually for their parents, sometimes for a teacher or youth pastor or scout leader. But they weren’t doing it for themselves. They were play-acting. And as the time came closer for them to become the person that they were play-acting, they couldn’t do it. They panicked; they spun out.
Watching as an outsider, particularly watching from the viewpoint of hindsight, I could see what they were talking about. I could see the pressure to perform. Dad boasts to his friends about his little princess because he’s so proud of her and it’s his way of telling her that he’s proud of her, but she hears it as another chain tying her to this make-believe role that nobody but she herself knows is make-believe. And it’s terrifying. She looks independent, but she’s not. She’s acting out a role that has every sign of successful independence, and people think that’s her, but it’s not. Not yet, anyway.
The reality is that we really aren’t very good at becoming adults. Think about your own life: what was the defining point when you could say, “Yesterday I was a kid; today I’m an adult!” Was that defining moment an accident or was it something intentional? Most of us have made the transition, but for the vast majority of us, it was by accident: we just stumbled into adulthood as we’re aiming for something else.
So there comes a time in every kid’s life where he or she needs to make the jump: not from “kid” to “adult” (so much of that happens biologically), but from “dependent” to “independent”. We never leave the extended family, but we’re no longer holding onto the apron strings.
Some tribal cultures have rite-of-passage rituals: they have this ceremony one night where the men take the adolescent boys out into the jungle or the desert or whatever, and in the morning, or the next weekend, those boys come back as full-fledged adult men. Everybody in the tribe knows it. There’s no question.
And I don’t think we ever teach kids how to do that.
But I’m not an adolescent psychologist specializing in child development; I’m an observer and a leader in the Church, the body of
Christ. And I think we have the same problem there.
Perhaps you’ve heard the statistics that most churches don’t ever talk about: the majority of kids in their youth group will never make the transition to adults in the church. The Southern Baptist study that shows that 70% of the kids never make it from youth group in the church to adulthood in the church. The guy who ran the study said, “Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza. There's no life transformation taking place.”
In other words, there is no successful mechanism (and in most churches, no mechanism whatsoever) to help “youth” become “adults.”
As a result, we have a lot of young people who don’t fit in the church anymore. Many have left the church altogether. But there are a substantial number of disenfranchised “young adults” – twenty something and thirty something individuals – in many churches who don’t fit into church:
· They’re too old to still be in the youth group; that would maintain their dependent status, as “junior members” of the church, which they’re not interested in.
· They don’t want to plug into a bunch of programs that were designed by old people and are still dominated by them. That’s just dependence in another guise: “This isn’t for people like you; it’s for older, more mature people. But you can come and watch if you want.”
· They don’t want to abandon the church altogether: they aren’t looking for rebellious independence. Well, OK: some of them are, but they aren’t the ones still hanging around the church wishing they could fit in. The goal isn’t rebellion; the goal isn’t rebellion, it’s independence. But sometimes they just have to go through the place of rebellion to reach it.
Most of us fit in this description one way or another: we want to be in relationship, but we don’t want to be “junior members” of that relationship.
The church is really good at setting up programs to fix what’s wrong with you, and for people who are in a place of immaturity or of real need, that’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s a real life-saver.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this: what needs to happen – what needs to change – in order to invite the next generation of believers to take their place beside us in the Great Cloud of Witnesses?
Here’s what I propose:
· We start by talking with this generation rather than at them. We spend as much time listening to them as we do talking to them. Talk to them as individuals.
· We resource their plans and hopes and wishes. We provide money, training, opportunity, whatever it takes to say “yes” to their ideas. Not all of their ideas; they have as many stupid ideas as you and I have, and you know that’s a big number. But we say “yes” as much as we can.
· We make church center around them and their generation, not the blue-haired folks that have been here since they were that age. We don’t turn everything around for them, but we turn some of it around. What part? I don’t know. Ask them.
· We mentor them. Instead of plugging them into a program (“a holding tank with pizza”), we invite them into real relationship, one-on-one, with the “franchised” adults: the ones who hold the power, who have positions of authority in the church. We help them with the frustrations and the confusion of the transition. We teach them things that their single-mom-working-two-jobs never had a chance to teach them.
· We play with them. In their arena. Sure, we’re going to be a little slower in the laser-tag or paintball games, but the fact that we’re there means a lot. We need to be with them; we don’t need to beat them. (Maybe it’s more important that we’re there for the beer and pizza party afterwards. Not sure.)
· Follow their leadership. Did you know that under all that youthful energy, there are some honest-to-goodness powerful leaders? No, they don’t have experience yet, and they never will until someone is willing to trust them with actual leadership. Make them home-group leaders, choir leaders, worship leaders in their own right, not only as an assistant to someone older.
· Invite them into positions of power with you. Involve them in planning – and not just for the “youth events.” Invite them to the board meetings. Put them on the decorating committee (now there’s power!). Put them on the ministry team. Let them lead the ministry team sometimes.
· Notice them: when they do well, point it out and celebrate. When they screw up, don’t pretend it didn’t happen: deal with the issue. Laugh about it if you can. Believe them when they repent and move on.