By Christian Davis
In 2016, the Barna Group published its most recent edition of The State of Youth Ministry. This report contains studies of youth attendance and involvement in church activities, parent expectations, ministry strengths and weaknesses, and many others. Amongst the wealth of statistics gathered from these studies, there are also several interviews with prominent Church Scholars. I found myself drawn to one particular interview with Sharon Galgay Ketcham, the associate professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College in Massachusetts.
In this interview, Dr. Ketcham touches on the “socially constructed category” known as the “teenager.” This term teenager has carried a negative connotation for numerous decades. Because this period of adolescence serves as a time of mental, physical, and spiritual growth, there is this tendency to associate this group with problems. As a result, parents and those involved in youth ministry seek out ways to fix the problems of the teenagers. Dr. Ketcham argues that there needs to be a significant shift in this thinking:
“What I am saying is that teenagers are more than problems to solve-they have potential as human beings, and surely God sees their potential in Jesus Christ through the work of the Spirit.” (47)
I certainly have fallen into the trap of focusing on the problems faced by this generation of teenagers. The pressures presented by social media and the necessity of constant engagement through technology (whether real or perceived), provide weighty challenges that I did not face when I was a teenage less than a decade ago. However, the opportunity remains the same with each generation and that opportunity is what Dr. Ketcham believes must be the primary focus:
“When parents, youth pastors and church leaders train their eyes to look beyond the dominant problem narrative, to recognize teenage potential and provide a place in the church for teenagers to practice using their gifts, teenagers will find a meaningful purpose in the church” (48)
So, what does that look like for parents, pastors, and church leaders?
It begins by not simply hoping that students would make it through the years with their faith still alive; instead, we should hope that in these years their faith would thrive. In essence, we must confront them with the same challenge that all Christians face and that it to use our gifts and abilities to their fullest potential to serve Christ.
Paul’s encouragement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12… 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity…serves as a charge for children and teenagers. However, it also serves as a reminder for youth ministry leaders as well. Let us not look down upon or limit the potential of student because of the challenges they face. Instead, let us embrace the opportunity they have to lead our congregations and communities through their speech, love, faith, and purity.
After class discussions of the challenges faced by churches, Dr. Cogdill, my professor at Campbell University Divinity School, would always finish by saying, “This is a great time to be a pastor.” Despite the previous conversation, he did not make that statement using sarcasm. He stated those words with a genuine belief that amongst those challenges, there was a great opportunity. It is with that same belief I state, “This is a great time to be a teenager.”
Reference: The State of Youth Ministry, Barna Group. 1996 (47-48)
Christian Davis is a graduate of Campbell University Divinity School. He serves as Minister to Student at Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C.