When the baby boomer generation began to start college, sociologists conducted large-scale research on what college freshmen saw as their primary motivation entering university. The most common answer, by a substantial margin, was the desire to find or construct a “meaningful philosophy of life.” American social and cultural history bore out that generational quest through social, political, and cultural movements of the late ’60s and into the ’70s, and as a child of baby boomers, I was subjected to this life-questing through some children’s book about a seagull seeking self-actualization that my parents seemed convinced would be relevant to me but which I found obtuse and pointless.*
Because, you see, the most pressing question of modern adolescence, social science (and personal experience) suggests, may no longer be rooted in ideology. Historical and demographic shifts have changed not the nature of adolescents’ quest for meaning, but where they look for it. Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book, “Practicing Passion,” suggests that the question that haunts adolescent minds is no longer, “will my life have meaning?” but “will you be there for me?” In my post on Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved,” I highlighted the intense need of teenagers to know that they are worth your time. Dean comes to largely the same conclusion.
What our teenagers crave (as an indispensable part of the “belovedness” I talked about last month) is fidelity. In an age where social networking has created a quantifiable measure for friendship that not only assigns numerical value to a teenager’s social worth, but creates the possibility of their instant, consequence-less “un-friending” at any time, the need for a love that will not fail, that will not “ghost” you, that will remain, even when you have nothing to offer, becomes a powerful, if unspoken drive.**
Andrew and I spoke, with some frustration, last week about a youth who was pushing back against us, and who we were struggling to hold on to. We were faced with the constant, uncomfortable truth of youth ministry: that we cannot save our kids, no matter how much we love them, and that, if they walk away, we cannot make them stay. Our conversation quickly wandered from attendance pattern to theology, and we found our closure and consolation in another truth, just as constant, but much more rich: that our job as practitioners of incarnational ministry (ministry that seeks to show Christ to those it serves though physical presence in their lives) is to have unwavering fidelity toward our youth, even if they cannot have it toward us.
Because just as our God was the answer to the baby boomer quest for a life with meaning, so is Jesus the answer to the modern adolescent’s quest for fidelity, for a love that will not fail. And fidelity, as much as it is a characteristic of God, must also be a characteristic of our church family. It is a practice, simple and pragmatic and core to the heart of Jesus. So may we model for our teenagers the fidelity that their hearts were designed to seek — in our families, in our congregation, and in our community. May we be a church that shows up, and that keeps showing up, no matter what, and may we be able, through Jesus, to answer the question of “will you be there for me?” with an unequivocal and unhesitant, “Yes.”
* It was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” obviously.
** Doubt that this matters? Ask a teenager to explain to you the politics of a Snapchat streak or a “finsta.”