Debunking the Stereotypes: Understanding the adolescents in our churches

Naomi (college junior):
When I came to college as a freshman, I was really excited about the new experience. But I couldn't believe how lonely I was. I missed my family and friends, of course. But Sunday was especially bad, because I really missed my church.

What did you miss about your church?

It was like a family. I felt like I was such a part of it all. Maybe thats because it's a small church, and we do everything together. When we worship, we feel such unity and such love for God and each other. There doesn't seem to be anything like it here.

Marsha (college senior):
That certainly wasn't my experience. I was as eager to leave my church community as I was to come to college. There was so much fighting between the members of my church And the funny thing was, they were fighting about which things were sinful I could have told them.

Wasn't there anything you liked about your church?

Not since I was about 15 or so. Oh, I liked Sunday school when I was little and clubs and young people's group. But during my last few years of high school none of it seemed important. The world is such a mess, and what people in my church were talking and arguing about didn't seem to relate to anything important.

Have you found a church home here at college?

You'll probably think this is pretty bad, but I haven't tried. I don't go to church now. I tried at first, but I feel like I can't worship in church. I go to chapel during the week sometimes, and I attend a Bible study group, but I don't go to church.

What happened to these two students during their high school years to make them react to church the way they did? Can we assume that Naomi's church was doing things just right and Marsha's completely wrong? Or was it something inside Naomi and Marsha that made them see the church the way they did and react accordingly?

What do high school students need from their churches and communities to help them worship?

The Myths and Facts of Adolescence

To answer questions like these effectively, church leaders need a more accurate understanding of who our young people are and what's most important to them.

Most of us have a variety of "teenage stereotypes" floating around in our heads. We tend to classify the teen years right along with the twos—terrible! But how many of those stereotypes are rooted in fact?

Psychologist Albert Bandura says that the "storm-and-stress" portrait of adolescence is a myth that has been projected by the mass media. The truth is that most adolescents go through the teen years quite smoothly, and all the dramatized pictures of deviance and rebelliousness are more fiction than fact. Adolescence can intensify problems that have emerged earlier, but the teen years are not the cause of these difficulties.

Another myth many of us buy into is that adolescents are eager to discard the values of their parents. But again, research indicates this isn't true. In a comparison of attitudes toward values and ways of living held by younger adolescents and their parents, little difference appeared between the two groups. Whether for good or bad, parental influence remains strong in the lives of their adolescent children.

Researchers usually talk about early adolescence, which includes ages 12 through 15, and late adolescence, which includes ages 16 through 20 to 25. The reason the age of the older group is so inexact is that adolescents do not abruptly all move into adulthood at the same time. Extended years of schooling, lack of certainty about career goals, and sporadic earning levels because of the job market have created a temporariness for people in late adolescence. Young people often respond to this temporary state by putting off more "adult" decisions.

There is a certain irony to this delay in moving into adulthood. We live in a time when adolescents reach biological maturity earlier than ever before in history. Yet they are postponing the decisions and responsibilities of adulthood far longer than adolescents of previous generations.

This disjunction between physical development and social roles has an impact on many parts of life—including spiritual and religious development. A research project prepared for the Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada (1987) found that there is a strong positive correlation between a person's psychosocial health and his or her faith development. According to this study, the quality of a persons involvement in the church contributes most to faith development. What happens or does not happen in the adolescent's worship and church life strongly influences the faith of the young adult.

Since we have had a tendency in the past few generations to expect little of adolescents, whether in society or in the church, we have not challenged many of our young people to move into mature behavior—either socially or spiritually. If we want to reverse that trend and nurture healthy Christian adults, we will have to reexamine ways of relating to and planning for and with teens of all ages.

Understanding the Early Adolescent (12-15)

Typically, young adolescents are impulsive. They keep their hurt feelings inside for a while and then blurt them out inappropriately, because they haven't yet developed the social skills or layers of protection that allow older people to cover up what is painful for them. They often adopt an air of pseudosophistication to cover up their worries, doubts, and feelings of uncertainty.

They are just beginning to learn to take the perspective of another person, an ability that allows them to recognize injustice and enables them to empathize with those in need. This ability marks the beginning of a mature personal faith and must be nurtured.

These early adolescents are also just beginning to understand that the central themes of religion have personal meaning for their lives. In worship, that translates to helping these young teens experience wonder and awe. For example, try worshiping with music that touches the hearts of young people, visual art that moves them, dramatic productions or interpretative readings of Scripture, and services of tenebrae and Taize. All of these can nurture faith—not because they are interesting and keep young people coming back, but because they move hearts and souls.

Young teens are also learning to be better at logical thinking. However, in practicing new ways of thinking, they tend to take delight in identifying the inconsistencies of their parents, teachers, and church leaders. Psychologist David Elkind believes that these new thinking abilities are accompanied by a belief that other people are as preoccupied with the adolescent's behavior and thinking as he or she is. As a result, some of them feel a desire to be noticed and "on stage," while others will do anything to avoid standing out in a crowd, convinced that everyone sees their flaws.

Some will welcome the opportunity to "perform" in a profession of faith that requires a public, personal statement of what faith means in their lives. Others will find the very idea of such a "performance" so excruciatingly painful that they may refuse to profess their faith publicly to avoid it.

At this age, young people crave acceptance and approval by their peers and at the same time resent authority. This does not mean they lack respect for authority, but rather that they long to be able to try out their independence. They act as though they feel rebellious toward adults, but many times they actually feel hurt because they believe adults cannot understand them. They may appear to think that their parents aren't very bright and that their lives are almost over, but they look to parents, teachers, and pastors as models for their own lives.

Since they feel caught between loyalty to friends and to parents, relationships with teachers and church leaders become increasingly important. Young adolescents want their pastors and other church leaders to know them by name, as individuals, rather treating them as faceless parts of a group.

Those who have been raised as part of a church family are often very concerned about matters of faith. In a recent survey, middle school students frequently expressed two concerns:

I'm worried that my faith should be better How strong is the faith of all those who went to heaven and how weak was the faith of those who went to hell? And where do I fit in?

I'm worried that Jesus isn't real and that some weirdo wrote the Bible. He just made it up or something. I have so many doubts—it worries me that I won't go to heaven or something.

The same survey showed that many of these young teens find the sermon difficult and lacking in meaning. In addition, they recognize that a lot of the young adults from their faith community no longer attend church, and they wonder if that could happen to them. As one student said,

I want to listen in church, but the sermons are so terribly boring and I'm afraid that when I'm out on my own, I will quit going to church. And then I won't go to heaven. I'm so afraid.

More than anything, young adolescents want to feel that they are a necessary part of the worshiping community. They need to sense that their presence really matters in the act of worship.

In earlier times adolescents were vital to family and community. Because they were needed, they developed responsibility and emotional maturity. Present-day adolescents have received a message from society and from many families that they have little to contribute.

We have to find ways of challenging these teens and helping them feel needed. The church can do a great deal to provide opportunities for them to practice responsible discipleship through participation in the worship service, in congregational life, and in the surrounding community. Activities such as ushering, serving refreshments, painting church school furniture, or helping teach younger children will help them understand that they are a vital, necessary part of the life of the church.

Understanding the Older Adolescent (16-20/25)

If their faith lives have been nurtured appropriately during early adolescence, teens will seek additional faith and worship experiences during their later adolescent years.

However, this may not happen without some struggle. Just as older adolescents occasionally question their family values as a way of finding their identity apart from the family, so also they may question the values and teaching of their family of faith, the church. Through their criticisms and questions, they are developing a commitment to beliefs and ideas that are truly their own. John Westerhoff says that at this point the "religion of the heart" becomes the "religion of the head." Or at least the two become of equal importance.

The questions older adolescents ask often have historical, theological, and moral dimensions, and simple answers do not satisfy them. "What is truth?" "What communities are worth giving your life to?" "If God is just, why do such dreadful things happen?" 'Are the doctrines I have been taught absolutely true for all time, or are they relative?"

The despairs and doubts that many young people face need to be recognized and affirmed as legitimate. Often these questions cause great emotional tension in the family particularly if parents feel they must provide answers but are ill-equipped to do so. In reality, such questions can more beneficially be addressed in the sermon, followed, perhaps, with discussion groups. Serious study on questions of faith and conversations about moral life are extremely important. (See Service Planning ideas on pp. 26-32.)

Recently a college student told me,

It seems to me that my church emphasized what not to do rather than helping us look at some legitimate alternatives for the way Christians may address issues and problems. That only succeeded in making me feel guilty whenl acted or believed in ways that were different from what was customary The answers fe church gave seemed simplistic to me, and once I got over the guilt, I was on my own.

In their search to know which communities are worth belonging to, older adolescents often explore alternatives to familiar worship traditions. It is only then that they are able to reach convictions that are truly their own. Their churches could help them with this search by providing presentations by Christians from other worshiping communities. The presentations might begin with similarities in the way we believe and worship, and then move to an explanation of the differences between us and some thoughts about why those differences exist.

Some churches ignore the difficult questions raised by older adolescents. That may be dangerous. Gallup and Poling suggest that the reason some older adolescents leave church altogether or join cults may be the failure of churches to meet their strong spiritual needs.

Even those who stay often struggle with these difficult questions—usually in silence, for fear that they will be perceived as having weak faith. Some of them remain loyal members of the church but deny themselves a rich opportunity for growth in faith and intellect. Others avoid asking questions as long as they can, and then become deeply troubled much later in life because the questions remain unresolved.

Churches need to find ways to legitimize asking difficult questions. My church plans a forum from time to time, an event that we call "Skeptics Sunday." After the morning worship service, a mature Christian speaks about his or her faith journey—talking about matters that have caused difficulty along the way and how he or she worked through those difficulties. Then the listeners are invited to ask questions that trouble them.

Not all of the questions can be answered, but the presentation and the asking legitimize the fact that sincere Christians are often troubled by difficult questions. Our pastor and his wife have also invited high school seniors to an overnight retreat to provide an atmosphere for frank and open discussions concerning difficult issues that Christians face. It is, in part, by truthful discussions of difficult questions with sincere Christians that young people come to a clearer understanding of how they may learn to manage their lives and the problems they will encounter along the way.

Mature faith is God's intention for us. But growing into mature faith is a process, just as growing into mature intelligence or love are processes. Along the way a variety of events can nurture or hinder a person's identity with the faith and life of a community of believing people. Understanding these events and their influence on the lives of young people will help us shape worship and plan congregational life that nurtures growth into mature faith.



I started going to church again in grade 10 because of our pastor, and I took the "Discover Your Gifts" workshop. I was the only young person there,but it helped me a lot.■ I don't think think a lot of kids understand that God gave them gifts, and they have to use them. Maybe it would help if we learned more about worship and got involved. Maybe next time we have a retreat, instead of talking about spiritual warfare or New Age or Satanism, we could study about worship together. That's what I think needs to be done.
—Kim Speelman (Ottawa, Ontario)

If i were the pastor, I would watch the time and talk less so we could get out of church at 12 o'clock.Sometimes the time doesn't matter thouhg.I have sat in church for three hours and not gotten bored because the choirs just kept singing and the pastor just kept preaching and everybody was excited and shouting. But sometimes the pastor talks too much— about when this and that happened and about this or that person—he doesn't have to say all that. Just get on with the program. Ministers want to talk all the time.
—James Bell (Grand Rapids, Ml)

Gloria Goris Stronks is a professor of education (emeritus) at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a member of Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 28 © June 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.