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Our teens need safe, caring, adults in their lives

11/1/1999
It has become fashionable to despair about America's young people -- the shootings in their schools and on their streets, their pierced bodies, the violence in their music, movies and video games, the predators on their computer screens -- how will this generation successfully navigate this gauntlet of threats and temptations?

The answer is simple, according to teens and adults who work with youths both within and outside the church. Like many simple answers, though, it isn't easy: Adults must become more involved in young people's lives and start treating them as who they are -- full members of Christ's body.

In a major, nationwide project, the Episcopal Communicators network has focused on how to help young people, adults and churches deal with the stresses of 21st-century teen life. Its members, who are diocesan editors and others involved in Episcopal communications ministry, have found numerous examples of how a trusted, interested adult can make all the difference for a teenager.

But they have also uncovered a sad truth: Episcopalian adults, like all adults, do a much better job of talking about teenagers than actually talking to teenagers. They are much better at bemoaning the lack of young people in their churches than they are becoming involved in those young people's lives and finding out why they don't come to church and, more importantly, where they are going.
When it succeeds, youth ministry makes a major difference in the lives of youths -- and in the life of the church.

"Being involved in the church and the youth group has definitely changed my attitude," says Christina Sanchez of St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach, Fla., who this summer went to the Niobrara Convocation in Eagle Butte, S.D. "Going on the mission trip made me more aware of the world.

"When I was in ninth and 10th grade, I just hung out with friends -- nothing really mattered. Then a friend got me going to St. Joseph's, and being around all the people at church -- not just the youth group -- has really made a difference. My grades have gone up from D's and F's to A's and B's, I feel better about myself, and I'm more compassionate and care more about other people.

"I think going on a trip like that can help someone understand how other people live, and maybe keep a person from making fun of people who are different."

This month, diocesan newspapers and other publications across the church will be taking part in "Stand Up for Youth," many including stories about local ministries. The communicators hope this combined effort will inspire others to become involved with youth.

Break through the fear

Stand Up for Youth was born of the horror wrought by the Columbine High shootings last spring. Oftentimes, positive action is born of tragedy. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 12 of their classmates and a teacher to death, then killed themselves, many churches were galvanized into focusing on their young people. Memorial services were held and attendance at youth groups rose. But the questions posed by the Columbine massacre still hang in the air: Why do young killers do it? What are they lacking in their spiritual lives that brings them to such a desperate point? What can the church do?

Betsy Boyd, coordinator of youth ministries at the Episcopal Church Center, said alienated youths often are asking questions and not finding someone willing to probe those questions with them. Teens who wear trench coats to school, or who wear the black clothing and makeup of the Goth culture, may turn off adults, but adults need to break through their own fear and uncertainty.

"They deeply want to know who is God, what purpose does he have in my life?" said Boyd. "Does he love me? Am I lovable? All those identification questions definitely have to do with how I see myself and how God sees me."

Teens aren't interested in pat answers -- they want proof. Rather than simply saying, "Jesus died for your sins and he loves you," adults need to share their own story, and demonstrate the love and acceptance that teens are seeking.

"I think Christ was a model for that," said Boyd. "So many times in the Bible he looked at someone for who they truly were and not some of their trimmings. ... It's intimidating, but the outer casing is just outer casing. It doesn't talk about what comes from the heart."
Part of the work is discarding the fiction that "our kids" aren't experimenting with drugs or sex because they -- or their parents -- come to church.

Jane Hartwell, youth missioner for the Diocese of Maine, said, "The real kids that I have come to know in congregations in the diocese are like this: Jason serves as a crucifer and is unable to see what's wrong with sleeping with his girlfriend. Laura experiments with wicca, drinks at parties and prays with her friend who fears pregnancy. Jonathan prays deeply to God, but refuses to come to Sunday worship services. Katie wrestles with the question of how God can allow suffering. Teens are not easily divided into the 'good kids' and the 'bad kids.'"

Kids need mentors

Boyd and other professionals in working with youth agree that young people need a mentoring relationship with an adult. They don't need adults to be their friends.

And they need safe places to go to and be themselves. Since Columbine, the assumption about what places are safe has been shattered.
"I see a trend of violence in schools getting worse and worse every day," said Thaddeus Wilasin, a high school senior from Vermont who attended a violence-prevention workshop at this summer's Episcopal Youth Event. He described fights growing out of racial tensions, as well as a growing number of bomb threats in school.

"Safety has to do with safe homes, neighborhoods and schools, where there are zero tolerance policies for violence and role models who teach peace and conflict resolution," said Doug Hecklinger, assistant director of St. Augustine's Ministries in Foxborough, Mass.

Churches are prime places to offer such guidance, if there are people willing to do so. Thom Chu, coordinator of the Episcopal Church's ministries with young people, noted, "The church's greatest blessing, which is totally underused, is our real estate -- centrally located, well cared for. ... But unfortunately it take more than opening the door."

The Rev. Robyn Szoke, coordinator of children's ministries at the church center, called on congregations to commit themselves to their young people, who "are really journeying into terror" in today's society.

"My own experience has taught me that congregations don't necessarily think through the theology of a child and what it means for a child to have a relationship to God and what their relationship is to the congregation."

Too often, adults decide what young people should believe and simply teach it to them. That's the wrong approach. "They want to have ownership in developing [their faith] and arriving at that," said Allen George, youth minister at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Ga. "The ones that are really growing and really moving forward in the faith are the ones who are helping to design their own involvement in the church."

When a congregation does do the spiritual work necessary, the payoff is huge. Andrew White of Hawthorne, Wis., a college freshman who attended St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake in Duluth, Minn., was a member of the Episcopal Youth Event design team. To him, the church was an ideal place for young people.

"I just found it [the church] to be a very centering point to my life to just give me a base grounding of a community of love and caring, and that's one of the most important aspects I think that the church offered me. And because that community of support was there that was beyond my family, that gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of security, actually."

Earning adulthood

One program that is becoming widely used is called Journey to Adulthood, known as J2A, which has been used in 870 Episcopal congregations so far, according to the Rev. Linda Grenz of LeaderResources, which publishes the materials. It is also used in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Anglican Church of Canada, as well as a few Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic congregations and a Four Square Gospel Church.

J2A, developed in 1992 by Amanda Hughes, David Crean and others at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Durham, N.C., is a six-year program that helps teenagers come to terms with their growing physical, emotional and spiritual maturity. Its twin principles are that manhood and womanhood are gifts from God and that adulthood must be earned.

Hughes said that the creators recognized a need for the community to "take responsibility to care for and nurture and transition young people," recognizing that "faith is imparted, it has to be given to young people and somewhere in that giving is the grace of God."
Divided into four areas -- spirituality, self, society and sexuality -- it is an extensive program that includes a pilgrimage in its last two years and ends with the young people being reintroduced to their congregation as young adults.

Part of J2A's success is in the honesty with which it deals with issues that teens face. "I was and continue to be amazed at what will happen when grown-up people will tell the truth to young people," said Hughes. If more would do so, "I think we could change the world," she said.

Keeping promises

Sometimes, the church can learn from others. One notable example of an organization committed to helping young people in pragmatic ways is America's Promise, founded by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell. The organization focuses on garnering measurable commitments from corporations, non-profit organizations and others to give time, money or resources toward fulfilling the five "promises." Those promises, developed by the Search Institute of Minneapolis, are a relationship with a caring adult, a safe place, a healthy start, a marketable skill and an opportunity to give back through service.

"We are beginning to grow a kind of reliability, a standard for youth work ... what we think contributes to the healthy development of character and competence in a child's life," said the Rev. Mark Farr, an Episcopal priest who is national commitments director.
Powell, who initiated the President's Summit for America's Future in 1997, has rallied hundreds of organizations to the cause.

"St. John's [Episcopal Church], my own parish church in McLean, Va., has adopted an inner-city school in Washington," said Powell. "Parishioners volunteer to be mentors and tutors, and the parish includes these inner-city youngsters in the activities we provide for our own youth. It really is quite extraordinary to watch the interaction between these two groups of young people; I think both are learning some valuable lessons from the experience."

Powell said that faith groups involved with America's Promise include the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In addition, three Roman Catholic dioceses, Miami, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., and Phoenix have committed to the program.

The Rev. Tony Campbell, also an Episcopal priest, recently joined Powell's staff after being involved in Houston's Promise, in which the Diocese of Texas was heavily involved.

"The first thing we did is we went out and recruited community leaders in the five goal areas. We got people who could ask for significant favors in the community to be commitment chairs." The first year goal of involving 200,000 children was surpassed by more than 50 percent, Campbell said.

Stating the obvious

America's Promise is ambitious, but its principles are lived out every day in church programs that offer structured activities and caring adults in a safe place. They can be found at St. Augustine's Ministries in Massachusetts and City Lights in Minneapolis and STEP/I Have a Dream, a partnership between St. Columba's Episcopal Church and Truesdell Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Nina Laing, who worked with STEP her first summer home from college, said the program "has had a definite impact on me. People are really involved with the kids, and you see it in their relationships."

Kathy McKay, co-chair of the program, has been involved with STEP since its origins, proves its not just young people who gain from such involvement.

"On a carpool ride, I told one of the children in the program that we would always be there for him. His family situation is such a mess. I wanted him to know that STEP would be there for him. I think growing up with my own kids, I forgot to tell them things. I think we forget to tell our kids the obvious."

And the children need to hear it.