By Sharon Galgay Ketcham, PhD
Justin’s eyes flash with fear, “What if I’m not good enough?” I’m sitting across the table from a high school junior before his theater audition. He hasn’t come to youth group for months, his grades are dropping, his moods are erratic, and his new pastime is watching YouTube. I volley back, “Okay, what if you don’t make the theater troupe?” Without hesitating he blurts out, “My life will be worthless.” Clearly this is not the first time Justin felt the life-determining power of an audition: “It’s like I’m running on a hamster wheel going from audition to test to the next Instagram ‘happy life’ post. Do I ever arrive anywhere?” Justin’s depleted energy and passions speak loud and clear.
How can we respond to the many young people we meet like Justin?
Concerns for young people fill my social media feed with headlines like, “Young people are addicted to their phones,” “Vaping takes a generation by storm,” and “The rise of teenage anxiety.” Conversations at our churches could also be headlines: “Busyness is the enemy of youth group,” “Faith isn’t a priority for this generation,” and “Young people are leaving the church behind.” There is a common thread among each of these: “problems” pervade the lives of young people. We have a long history of problematizing teenagers in Western societies as well as in the church.
Developmental researcher William Damon calls problematizing a deficit-based view of young people. They are limited, lacking something, or have a deficiency to overcome. Problematizing reduces young people to problems to solve. With good intentions, adults take on a fixing posture and rev up to provide them with what they lack. The problem narrative shapes how we spend our time and money as well as the topics we teach and programs we offer. Adults surely do need to commit resources that are beneficial and supportive of young people. Yet young people, like Justin, are more than our problems to solve.
Young people are Creator God’s valuable creation
Proclaiming God as Creator was a dominant worship theme among early Christian communities. The God of Abraham was not like the gods of the surrounding polytheistic culture. Those gods were often competing, limited in power, or derived from other gods. In response, Christians upheld the uniqueness of God as “maker of heaven and earth” (Nicene Creed). This affirmation makes clear that creation is always distinct from its Creator. God cannot be reduced to creation (pantheism), and the line between God and creation is not blurred (pantheism). God alone is God. Because God is Creator, God creates freely. Nothing forces God to create as if some external force tells God what to do. Neither does God become more complete through creation like some kind of self-actualization. Creator God freely creates, and God declares creation to be good and valuable (Genesis 1-2). God’s freedom to create demonstrates God’s free love for creation.
God freely loves young people. God created them as deeply valuable before they go to auditions and even after they fail a test. Even as they persist in sin and drink from empty wells, God freely loves. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” as a demonstration of love (Rm 5:8). Young people are part of God’s beloved creation. They can’t achieve, perform, or earn more of God’s love on the hamster wheels so prevalent in our society. Creator God’s creation, young people included, is already more than enough. More than an abstract theological claim, Creator God is an affirmation that shapes our lives.
How might young people experience being God’s valuable creation in your ministry and church?
- Celebrate young people. Problematizing celebrates achievement (knowing the answers in Bible study) and performance (regularly attending youth programs and church) and can increase stress for someone who is struggling like Justin. Celebrating young people for who they are involves paying attention. Listen before talking, and inquire before inviting. Such celebration looks less like a party and more like sacred moments where Justin’s face brightens with hope because we listen more often than seek to fix.
- Practice pausing. Problematizing makes us want to add more programs, which can perpetuate stress and anxiety in our “busy” culture. Proclaiming God as Creator invites us to pause and acknowledge our Creator. Sabbath is an intentional pause from the regular pace of life that allowed Israel to reorient and embody its dependence on the Creator. Yet pausing is unfamiliar when running on a hamster wheel. Try pausing for 30 seconds before a prayer. Invite young people to take deep breaths and slow down. Pause to let young people write down a thought during a Bible study or conversation like I am having with Justin. Slim down the retreat schedule to include a siesta for reflection.
Remembering God as Creator is not asking us to merely admire the beauty of sunsets and mountain peaks but to turn our attention to the Creator of such masterpieces. When we acknowledge young people as part of God’s good creation, we participate in an act of worship – we give glory to God for young people.
On January 24-25, 2019, The Center for Youth Ministry Training hosted Cultivate: A Thoughtful Youth Ministry Conversation. This gathering, intended for youth workers to have space for intentional and open conversation, addressed pressing topics youth are facing today: Gender & Sexuality and the Church; Teenage Anxiety & Stress; Racism, Nationalism and the Role of Youth Ministry.
Below is Cultivate keynote speaker, Dr. Sharon Ketchum, addressing Teenage Anxiety & Stress to a gathering of youth workers.
Learn more about Cultivate here.
About the Author:
Sharon Galgay Ketcham is the professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College, MA, and author of Reciprocal Church: Becoming a Community Where Faith Flourishes Beyond High School (IVP, 2018).