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Adolescence and the Creation of the Secular Age of Unbelief (So what?)

This article is the second in a two part series focusing on the relationship between adolescence, as a cultural category, and secularity in the West. In this article youth ministry vet Kevin Alton provides practical insight into the significance of adolescence and secularity for youth ministry.

Meanwhile, back in the youth room…

“So what,” says the average youth worker.

The difficulty of connecting the big picture of youth ministry, spirituality, and adolescence with what goes on at the local church is pretty staggering. On the one hand, you’ve got all that Andrew has just unpacked about the impact of the progressive reality that we are buffered individuals wrestling with a spirituality rooted in porousness and the very real threat this presents to engaging the modern adolescent with anything transcendent. On the other hand, you have what I’ve come to call “the girl on the lake.” The girl on the lake lives for summer. She’s active on social media. When June arrives, she vanishes from the church and her Insta feed fills with images of sunsets, ski boats, and the occasional family-supervised underage beer. She gives not a whit about whether she arrived at her adolescent label by zigzag or homerun and is content to leave all of her unthoughts un-thought. She would say that she believes in God, largely because she lives in Georgia where most people say that. Her faith is fundamentally transactional, though she wouldn’t say it like that. There are days when I am deeply jealous of the girl on the lake. I would love to be able to check out on the big picture and just… swim a while, I guess.

The youth minister, then, is in need of some very long arms, as it remains at times our place to hold these two realities together. The truth is, our practice youth ministry in general may very well have more in common with the girl on the lake than any ability to equip her to discover and interact with the transcendent. Youth ministry has so learned to accommodate the girl at the lake that it may have lost its ability to guide her.

Imagine it like this: the immanent frame represents the natural world. Adults have learned to function within it and seek fullness either within it or beyond it. As children are growing into adolescence, the family and church have adopted a posture of sheltering and accommodating them, in a sense protecting them from the boundaries of the immanent frame. Youth are encouraged to seek fullness from within themselves, with families of privilege essentially letting the kids dictate the direction of the family (you can be anything you want!) through middle school and high school (travel teams, anyone?). This bubble of adolescence is protected as long as possible, with the teen able to seek wonder and fulfillment within themselves and the culture they build with their peers.

One day, the bubble will break. Sometimes a life event will sneak past the protectors of the bubble and destroy it—a divorce, a death in the family, even an unexpected move away from friends. Or maybe everything goes great, and they simply grow to the point that their bubble is touching the sides of the immanent frame in too many places for them to ignore it anymore. In either case, at this point they “grow up” and put away the fantasies of childhood. Their practice of faith often falls victim here as well.

The problem youth ministry faces in this conversation about the plausibility of transcendence is that we too often don’t encourage that conversation starting while we still have the opportunity to take part in it. Kids wake up in college and are faced with the very present reality of the immanent frame. Science makes an awful lot of sense, because that’s what science does. Transcendence is some cute fairy tale ideal that they packed away with the other toys when they left for college. It’s not just because science is more provable. A big factor is very likely that they are also faced with the knowledge that the church never really talked about the possibility of faith and science coexisting, so they presume they’re meant to choose.

This idea that they feel like science is in one direction and faith in another really lays bare how poorly we’ve communicated the movement of God and the nature of transcendence. The girl at the lake wakes up in college and considers that if there was never any room for science in what she called her faith, there’s hardly any reason to consider that there might be room for some faith in her science. This is hardly the fault of science; youth ministry has failed to express that the transcendent exists within the immanent frame every bit as much as it does outside of it. Think of the immanent frame as a lobster trap floating beneath the surface of the ocean of transcendence. Is the ocean inside of the trap or outside of the trap? “Yes,” is the answer. But we have somehow communicated this as an either/or proposition.

So how do we fix that? In short, stop trying to answer everything. Learn to enjoy the richness of an unknowable thing. Celebrate what your youth are willing to wrestle with more than you celebrate what they figure out.

The way we do discipleship also needs a good shoulder shake. If youth ministry does extended, intentional discipleship at all, it usually takes the form of confirmation or some other professionally created resource. With Protestant denominational resources, local church volunteers are generally tasked with fire-hosing centuries of theology, practice, and institutional knowledge into unsuspecting middle school kids. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t work.

The problem with information-dump-as-discipleship is that it essentially attempts to hand to youth a very large suitcase full of answers to questions they haven’t asked yet. Worse, it hands incredibly complicated abstract things to very concrete thinkers, who are ultimately asked, “Do you hold these things to be true?” They’re forced to process it all as one solid block of yes or no, not as the amazing, intricate web of years of experience and thought that we’re given the rest of our lives to sort through. For many youth, it’s probably a relief to let go of it when they get to college.

Andrew spoke earlier of cross-pressure, this feeling of tension between wanting to chase after glimmers of the transcendent against the unmistakable pull into the immanent. Youth are feeling that, even if they can’t express it yet. Youth ministry needs to be the presence that acknowledges that tension and gives them words for it—not simply trying to agitate and define their transcendent observations while ignoring the realities of the immanent pull. Our spiritual discipleship programs need to spend less time force-feeding Christian education and more time telling youth, “We know where you are!” Let’s face it; if they ultimately leave the church, it’s really not going to matter that you spent an afternoon outlining the administrative structure of your denomination. But if you can speak to their actual experience, they might stick around long enough to care about that on their own.

I’ll leave you with one last thought on whatever it is you do for Christian discipleship or confirmation: leave a window open somewhere in how you present the foundational thinking of your local church. Chances are that not all of the kids in the room will remain in the Christian faith. Chances are even better that of those that do remain, not all of them will stay in the same form of Christianity. Your church’s common language is the most important reason for its existence. But when we present it as the language about our faith, we invalidate ourselves as a place to ask questions. If, ultimately, we have to be the answer, we’re a dead end. Or a cul-de-sac, at best.

Finally, find ways—and encourage your leaders to do the same—to involve your own story of embracing your chosen common language. Speak from your own experience of cross pressures. Show them the transcendent in your journey through the immanent. 

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM

Kevin Alton is a youth ministry veteran and a writer, author, and speaker on all things spiritual and age-level Christian ministry. He’s the co-creator of the Wesleyan curriculum website Youthworker Circuit and serves as content curator for Science for Youth Ministry, a Templeton grant funded effort of Luther Seminary. Kevin lives with his wife and two boys in the Georgia woods just outside of Chattanooga, TN. You can connect with him on most social media as @thekevinalton