In Search of Self

woman_hair_smYouth are particularly image-conscious. Developmentally they are at the stage where they are trying on selves to see what fits—to see what feels right. They are seeking to define themselves as distinct and separate from their parents, and for that matter, anyone who has been extremely significant up to this point in their lives. They are highly susceptible to various pressures, and in many ways have cut themselves off from their childhood support network. As the young woman or the young man goes about establishing her or his separate identity, parents are often disconnected as confidants and advisors. Church relations can also become strained. The voices of their peers become louder and more important to them. MTV and Snapchat seem more relevant to where they are than just about anything or anyone else. The performer of the hour is singing their language.

Lest you be too depressed to read further, it should be stressed that this is a crucial and beneficial developmental stage. As someone who cares for youth, you want to encourage their search for themselves. As you do, there are several things to remember.

• Celebrate the growth that leads through their wondering and searching into a greater maturity. Theirs is not struggle for struggle’s sake, nor do they ask questions simply for the sake of questioning. Lead youth in such a way that their questions and struggles are not your questions and struggles. Sometimes youth get caught up in what the adults of a church are involved in and that can be detrimental to growth.

• Share of yourself. You have the opportunity to model for them (in a variety of ways) the outcome of your own struggle. Do not, by the way, make the assumption and do not express to the youth that because you went through your own struggle you understand what they’re going through. The experience of the youth of today is qualitatively different from the experience of even the previous generation’s youth. A good rule of thumb is that it’s more appropriate to share what you do believe, what you do affirm, what you are sure of, than to expose the youth to your own questions and doubts. Certainly, you want to be honest, but be aware that sometimes the last thing youth need is your complete honesty. This is not a suggestion that you ever lie; it is a recommendation for discretion.

• Offer youth your excitement about being a Christian. One of the dangers facing the church is being so open to everything that we really don’t stand for anything. Another real danger is young people who are not taught the stories because the issues are more important; youth who are not taught the doctrine because the motives are what matter; young people for whom Jesus is like Ghandi and Buddha and Martin Luther King, Jr., and anyone else working for the virtues we claim for their own sake. Share with them what it is that makes the Christian faith distinctive for you.

• Understand as best you can your role with them. Your role, the role of the church, is not to sing their language like the latest rock band. The point is not to identify with them, but to accept them and love them and assert that beyond the apparent meaninglessness, senselessness, violence, whatever else you want to add to a list that’s always growing, that there is a light shining in the darkness. It shouldn’t come across as sanctimonious; it shouldn’t sound easy; it shouldn’t sound like it takes care of all problems. It should sound like something you have lived; it should sound like something you wouldn’t choose to live without.

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