Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Teenagers?

Our teenagers are at Queens College in Charlotte, NC for PASSPORT this week. You might think this week would come as a welcome breather, a respite from the chatter and energy of our most vibrant Wieucans. But I miss them.

Earlier this year I thought I might be able to join them, but it was not meant to be. Sitting comfortably in Atlanta, I’m not missing living in a dorm room, cafeteria eating, or keeping “teenager” hours–teenagers are exhausting! But I am missing our walks across campus together, volleyball tournaments, nightly devotions, and watching our students worship.

You can learn a lot from our students, and over the years I have. Here are three of the most important things I’ve learned.

1. There’s no substitute for enthusiasm. 
Enthusiasm is infectious. It makes heavy jobs light, boring tasks fun, and long days shorter–and teenagers have it in spades. Adults tend to meet new ideas with fear, doubt, and skepticism. Teenagers have a way of both offering and embracing new ideas with wonder, energy and enthusiasm.

Too often our teenagers have good ideas that we have to say no to because time or resources are lacking, but I wish we could say yes more often. We should say yes more often. For teenagers the default option is yes.  Sometimes that gets them into trouble, but more often than we do, we ought to channel their enthusiastic optimism toward building the kingdom of God. God–and our teenagers–might amaze us with their creativity.

2. Christian formation is a decisive element in the development of adolescents.
Our teenagers face challenges and pressures that few of us could have even imagined when we were their age. The culture they grow up in is increasingly secular, selfish, and jaded. Most of today’s teenagers operate without many of the safety nets of community and family that we wish were there for them. It only takes one bad mistake to slip between the ropes. Voices of love and encouragement, voices that provide safety and boundaries, are few and far between. Without safe places and clear boundaries the fragile innocence of youth doesn’t survive very long.

The church is one of the few places where the sacred continues to be celebrated. The church ought to be a place where Christ-like selflessness is taught and modeled. The church can be a place where innocence is preserved; not simple-minded naivete, but the dreaming innocence of creatures in union with their Creator. Many of our teenagers are lucky enough to have these Christian qualities modeled at home, but not all of them are. That makes the work of the church in the lives of teenagers ever more important.

Besides, if we’re intentional about providing safe and sacred places, setting clear Christian boundaries and expectations, and modeling Christian behavior for our teenagers, it might spill over into our adult populations, too!

3. Authenticity trumps everything. 
Teenagers have a special knack for sniffing out the fake, the contrived, and the outright fraudulent. You can’t “fake it” with teenagers, at least not for very long. More than any other age group, teenagers are bombarded with social interactions designed to get them to be or do or buy something. Teenagers live in a world of transactional relationships where every encounter is graded as a win or a loss. If you want to shock a teenager, be transparently honest and authentic, expecting nothing in return for your time and attention. In today’s world, authentic relationship is a truly radical idea.

Come to think of it, in an “everything old is new again” kind of way, authentic relationship has always been a radical idea. It was one of the most consistently radical elements of Jesus’ interactions with others in the New Testament. The unexpected way that Jesus entered into relationships with unexpected people in unexpected places consistently shocked the first-century crowds that followed him. So when we say that teenagers have sharp antennae for authenticity, what we’re really saying is that teenagers have a high aptitude for recognizing and celebrating Christ-like relationships.

Our teenagers come back from PASSPORT tomorrow. When they return, they’ll be expecting and craving a church that welcomes their enthusiasm, a church that is a safe place to explore and experience sacred subjects, and a people willing to enter into authentic relationships that model the relationship-building example of Christ.  If we can be that for them, they can lead us to partner with God to do amazing things.

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