So, when I arrived at Hamline Church, there were some books about Youth Ministry on my desk.
One of them was Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries. I was a huge fan of that book, and I ate it up pretty quickly, hoping to save myself from over-eager mistakes. (And it worked, theoretically, at least. It gave me lots of things to think about before jumping off the deep end of becoming solely a program coordinator.)
Now I’m working on ‘Family-Based Youth Ministry’. I’m about 50 pages in. Here’s the premise:
He’s convinced that there is a crisis in the spiritual lives of teenagers.
DeVries wants to demand attention from adults for teenagers. He believes that the crisis is that the adults are no longer present in the teenagers’ lives. The adults leave the teenagers alone. They have no connection to older, wiser people. He cites a 1974 study by Bronfenbrenner:
“We can find the primary cause of the current crisis in youth ministry in the ways that our culture and our churches have systematically isolated young people from the very relationships that are most likely to lead them to maturity. Granting our children the ‘privilege of being left alone’ has served, in part , to create a wholesale epidemic of adult neglect of the next generation.” (36)
This book was written in 1994 originally. The second edition was published in 2004 with added information and practical assessments.
It took me about 20 pages to figure out that I was 17 when the second edition of this book came out, and that what he was writing about was kids my age. The crisis he’s referring to isn’t associated with cell phones or facebook, or instagram or twitter.
He’s talking about me, and other people my age. He’s talking about those pesky, narcissistic, miserable, co-dependent millennials. He’s addressing a crisis that developed when WE were the Youth that were being ministered to.
Looking at the popular literature for the American teenager (and young adult) these days, we see The Hunger Games among those at the top of the list. For young women in particular, here’s a novel that they connect with as expressive of their own experience: growing up alone as a child who has to do everything herself, whose genuine devotion to others is seditious and dangerous in a vicious adult world, and is solely made responsible for a rebellion and the collapse of her (horrible, tyrannical) society. (And let’s not even get into what romantic relationships look like in this world.)
But, is this issue really a crisis of a generation? Or is being a teenager just plain a crisis?
Being a teenager sucks no matter when you’re going through it, I’d say. School is horrible, your body confuses you and grows too fast, and your intellect is figuring out how to be your own human. Your peers are frustrating and empathy is still majorly in development.
I think this is probably why DeVries is horrified that wiser, more emotionally developed adults are not in the lives of young people. But is that really new?
DeVries says:Teenagers today [1994-2004] are in trouble. And what they don’t know can literally kill them. We are sending our kids into adulthood ill prepared for the increasing demands of our complex society. … Teenagers are dying at a higher rate than they were forty years ago–victims of accidents, suicide, homicide, drugs and alcohol. While the members of every other age group are more likely to live than they were forty years ago, adolescence has become for many a life-and-death obstacle course. (35)
He says that this is not caused by one singular factor (ie, Everyone says the Nuclear Family has broken down), but he is convinced that one thing is taking the lead in causing this, and he refers to that as a breakdown more of an extended family of wise adults. Instead of shepherding young people into an adult world that knows what its doing, adults leave kids to fend for themselves and run around alone until they just figure it out.
He says this is new. I’m not sure I agree.
The greatest generation was dropped into a war zone all alone. The 1968 generation was drafted and stuffed into tunnels all alone. They were fire-hosed and attacked at rallies.
They told the young adults of the 1940s that they had to save the world from evil, and threw them into wars into which they were made responsible for good winning over evil, and in much of the generational zeitgeist, the world order as we know it.
They told young adults from the 1960s and 70s that they had to save the universe from the communists, but then what was placed on those kids’ shoulders was the responsibility to believe in a broken system: a system that they ultimately rejected. These kids took on civil rights, morally ambiguous wars, and much more. And the adults in their lives told them that it was their responsibility, then got mad when they didn’t handle it according to plan.
Sure, our kids might be dying more frequently from homicide, suicide, alcohol and drugs, but so many fewer of them are being shot at on enemy lines. And, let’s not forget that the ones who ARE are increasingly isolated from the wider picture in society–and still thrown into morally ambiguous wars.
Societies have always put everything on their teenagers, while also blaming them for their inability to take care of business the way that adults would like. Societies have always, in some way, left kids to fend for themselves.
But, I personally believe that if you want to know if something has really changed, you ought to look at the literature that captures the generation and helps them put their internal, inexpressible emotions into a story. And there is something to note about comparing the great fantasy novels of the 1940s to those of today.
Let’s consider the Lord of the Rings, an epic novel written in the 1940s that captured much of the subsequent generations.
The Lord of the Rings, written mostly during WWII, is about a small and unlikely youth who is thrown into an epic battle of good and evil with 3 of his friends. He is made solely responsible for the world order and suffers greatly at the hands of a great evil that he must destroy. Only he can do it.
There are countless wise and powerful people who hand the Ring to him, who make him understand his task, and who fight on his behalf, but he alone is really responsible for this astronomical task that holds the fate of every creature on earth. That task destroys him, but he is able to do it.
Let’s also consider CS Lewis’ first few Narnia books, also 1940s.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe four children become solely responsible for ousting an evil queen and resisting her temptations. They become the new leaders of this world, and they are a direct answer to prophecies laid down generations before. In these novels, children have a particularly special role to play that will inevitably right some horrible wrong in the world, and they alone can play that role.
What’s different between these and The Hunger Games?
Two things jump out at me explicitly.
First, the isolation from peers.
Katniss Everdeen must fight her peers and kill them. The constant battle going on within her psyche is whether or not to trust the other young people around her–especially Peeta. She is a person deeply troubled by any form of intimacy, and cannot rely on anyone else. Whereas in LOTR and Narnia, these children work together to solve an enormous moral burden placed on them by the outside world, Katniss works through that entirely alone and struggles to understand how to bring others into it. It is almost accidental moments of love and humanity that make her a focal point for resistance to evil, moments when her “weaknesses” come out.
Second, the intentional viciousness of the adult world.
In LOTR, Frodo and his hobbit friends have countless older, wiser, and more powerful characters supporting them in their task. Yes, the task is only Frodo’s, and yes his friends can support him but cannot do it for him, and yes, there is much evil to struggle through–but there is Gandalf, and Strider, and the Elves, and even the Dead that are fighting for him to succeed.
Likewise in CS Lewis’ novels: Aslan fights for the children, and those same characters who place the burden on them are also the ones who fight alongside them to restore good to the world.
In The Hunger Games, the adults are all either useless and dependent or intentionally manipulative and vicious. It is very much a story about a battle between adults with power and adults without power in which the children are abused as pawns. The burdens that are placed on Katniss’ shoulders are not about restoring order or fighting evil, but rather WINNING something, in which the only attractive outcome is the ability to keep on living at all.
Something similar can be said about Ender’s Game. Ender is given responsibility for the saving of the entire human race. The adults in his life also consistently lie to him, manipulate him, and intentionally isolate him from any meaningful relationships with peers.
So, DeVries is definitely right about one trend. Children are isolated from adults, and don’t perceive wisdom, grace, and safety to come from them. Adults in these novels are either absent or vicious, as opposed to adults in Narnia and LOTR who are supportive roles in a task that only the kids can take on. On the other hand, we may also want to take note of the trend in isolation from peers as well. All problems won’t be solved by introducing more adults, because to some extent, adults have always been figures of anxiety and danger for teenagers. The generation-to-generation issues will never change, and they are age old and written into our psyche as a species.
I’m open to comments, especially thoughts in how Harry Potter might fit into all of this.
Also, I didn’t even get into gender. I could have written an even longer post about that, and maybe I will. But that’s not the conversation I want to have this very moment.