"Bye-bye church. We're busy." That's the message teens are giving churches today." The article in USA Today then goes on to report that only one in four teens now participates in church youth groups, and declining numbers engage in Christian behaviors like prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, and church attendance.
This seems to reflect the news, reported more frequently over the last years, that fewer Americans profess any distinct religious faith or denominational affiliation. But reality is a little more complicated, as usual. The numbers reported by USA Today are based on YouthPoll, an annual study by the Barna Group that tracks the religious involvement of teens. Upon closer examination, the results actually show some rising levels of involvement among evangelicals (as opposed to Catholic or mainline denominations), with one exception: Evangelical teens are less likely now to share their faith with unbelievers than they were 12 years ago. Are they scared, or ignorant, or both? A youth evangelist brother tells me that the kids he speaks to seem less articulate about their faith and more easily distracted by the world. "And yet, I also hear that today's youth want the hard-core truth. They want to be hit with it."
One purpose of a church youth group is to reinforce Christian belief among peers and create a sense of strength in numbers, but the ways and means change according to fashion. When I was a youth, it was games and pizza with a late-'60s detour into relational dynamics. In my daughter's case, it was informal debate on burning issues-once she startled me with the news that she and one other teen were the only pro-life voices in a group discussion on abortion. Though the experience was a character-stretching exercise for her, we didn't attend that church much longer.
When my son grew to "youth group" age, we didn't belong to a church that had one-but, the Spirit first moved him to profess Christ among peers, at a rural Baptist camp. Christian peer interaction has its place, and certain kinds of peer pressure can even be positive. If the kids are losing interest, the problem may be less in the idea of youth group than in the idea of what it means to be a teenager.
It used to mean taking on adult responsibilities in expectation of marriage and family. But by mid-20th century a culture of unprecedented wealth and leisure created a holding pen for teenagers called "adolescence," carefree years that parents fondly expected would be the time of their children's lives. Instead, idleness without a focus has produced teen angst-a modern construct that makes less sense the more you think about it. At a time of peak energy, optimum learning ability, and fresh enthusiasm, why are so many teens listless, bored, and jaded? Gen X adults remember those years as a viper pit of peer pressures and identity crises-and hormones, of course. Then they write books and produce music to reinforce that view, which makes the kids even more depressed.
To grant surplus energy to someone who could only be frustrated by it would be a cruel joke, and God is not a cruel joker. Nor does He exploit, as tyrants and demagogues have exploited youth throughout history. With goals, guidance, and growth, why can't the teen years be among the best?
Youth group is often seen as a way to keep kids off the streets. Yet just the opposite should be true. "Go!" Jesus told His followers: Hit the streets! Youth delights in revolution; it's a great way to take one's own measure. Jesus came with the most revolutionary, countercultural, radical message ever. Every time the church tries to settle into complacency, He shakes it up again. He's shaking now, raising the alarm among all ages. Teenagers should be pulling their boots on and listening to the Harris boys: "Do hard things."
It's a great day for challenges. "Let no man despise your youth," indeed-but more importantly, don't despise your own.
Email Janie B. Cheaney