Every youth leader agrees conceptually with the premise that youth programs should be designed to meet the needs of students. The question, however, then becomes, “What are these needs?” As I have grown older, I have seen a gradual rift between my needs and their needs. In the earliest experiences I had as a youth leader, I was nineteen years old. If I designed programs that met my needs, I would come fairly close to meeting the needs of at least some of my students.
Now I am over thirty. How can I keep current with student needs? How can I make sure that our programs meet their needs even though they will seldom meet mine anymore?
Over a dozen years ago, Merton Strommen released a book that has become a youth ministry classic—Five Cries of Youth. In it, he described the various pressures on students: loneliness, the family, peers, and other related themes. He identified these “cries” of youth and then urged church youth groups to respond.
Our task is the same: to identify our students’ “cries” and then to respond. We must do this if our youth ministries are to be at all relevant to the teens we are trying to reach. If we don’t respond, young people will find their own alternatives, as the Nor-man/Harris report of 1981 summarized: “Since most adults don’t really understand what teens face in school, kids learn to devise their own solutions for survival.”
We don’t want our students thinking that we don’t understand their worlds. We don’t want them surviving by devising their own solutions (which may hurt them over a long period). We want to know where they are coming from, what pressures they are facing, and then to address these issues. We want our teenagers to know that the Christian life and biblical principles are relevant and can help them in their own lives. To do this, we must work hard to keep fresh in our understanding of teenage growth characteristics, the teenager’s world, and the specific world of our youth.
THE TEENAGER’S WORLDS
Keeping current with today’s teenager is no easy task because they live in several separate but overlapping worlds. Their schools, their families, their peers, and even the youth group all make up different worlds that can influence their behavior and attitudes.
1. The school. An average teenager will spend between fifteen percent and twenty-five percent of any week at school. (It’s a much higher percentage of their waking hours). Classes, extra-curricular activities, time to hang around, and sports all play a significant part in the teenager’s life. It is at school where students develop their friendships, mold their values, and form their ideas about priorities and life.
Keeping fresh requires that we put ourselves where our students live. According to the town or city, the schedule of the youth leader, and the policies of individual principals, going on campus may or may not be an option for you. Some administrators allow youth leaders on campus during the day; others forbid it. If we are not allowed on campus for lunch or to sit in on classes, we can still be creative:
· Go to a PTA meeting with parents from the youth group.
· Go to school athletic events that are open to the public.
· Volunteer to assist as a coach or tutor.
· Sign up to chaperone a dance or social event.
· Become a sponsor of an extra-curricular club.
One principal allows me on campus all the time, as long as I check in at the office. I have sat in on classes, met students at the cafeteria for lunch, and even participated in teaching classes. Another principal doesn’t allow me on campus, but he’ll meet with me quarterly to share his views on themes and needs in the student body. When I meet with him, I always try to take the longest route through the school to his office. This way I can read bulletin boards, overhear conversations, look at the posters or stickers on lockers, and observe the variety of ways that students dress. All of it helps me understand the students I am trying to reach. In a third school system, I’m never allowed on campus. The principal doesn’t like me too much, so I have to get my information about the school from other sources. At that school, I must rely more on what Jay Kesler calls “creative hanging around” after school or at athletic events.
Going into the world of the high school or junior high student does three things. It helps us see the real world in which they live. It challenges us to address the gospel to the needs we see there, and it increases our credibility with our students. As they hear us talking about their schools or their corridors or their principals, they begin to realize, “Hey, this person knows where I live.”
2. The family. Experts still debate whether peers or parents have the greatest impact on young people. It may be that peers are getting the edge because of working parents, single-parent homes, and the general dissolution of quality relationships at home.
A variety of factors must be taken into account when we are seeking to understand our students’ homes: the number of children, the status of their parents’ marriage, the position of the child in the birth order, the faith of the parents, and the working status of each parent. Finances, in-laws living at home, and the configuration of the neighborhood also can play a part, as can the frequency of moves that the family has made over the life of the teenager.
Understanding the family situation is even more difficult than getting on campus. Few youth leaders are invited to sit in on family conversations. To find out about family needs that we might be able to meet, we can look to several sources:
• The students themselves (although this usually requires a lot of trust because they won’t want to voice much criticism about their families)
• Honest parents (but those who talk honestly with you about their needs are often not the ones needing the most help)
• Others in the church (this can be helpful, but there is always the danger of gossip)
• School counselors (some are very willing to cooperate; others are very secretive, fearing that we’ll only complicate problems with our religious answers)
• Unspoken messages from the students (nightmares on the retreat, extreme silence or misbehavior in the youth group, or caustic remarks about family members all could be signals of trouble at home).
Perhaps the most basic family need relates to our roles as “parent figures,” especially to those students who don’t have both parents living at home. Because children of a divorce or separation often end up living with their mother, male youth leaders can fill a critical role as a father figure. This ministry is people intensive—usually one-on-one—so it may be beyond the reach of some youth ministries, but it is a family need that churches must start addressing much more seriously if our young people are to grow up healthy in the family of God.
3. Peers. The strongest desire in many teenagers is the desire to be loved and accepted. As the teenager grows, however, even the solid family doesn’t provide enough of this love. An average teenager will go outside of the home to test his or her skills at forming relationships and finding love from others. This is why the world of their peers is vitally important.
Psychologist David Elkind, author of the insightful book All Grown Up and No Place To Go, identifies peers as one of the main causes of what he calls the “patchwork self’ in teenagers. Because they are desiring acceptance from all the important people in their lives, teenagers don’t have a strong sense of individual identity.
Instead, they develop this “patchwork self,” a conglomeration of behaviors, attitudes, and even personality traits that will help them achieve acceptance from peers, teachers, parents, coaches, siblings, and other significant people in their lives.
If we are to be effective in meeting students’ needs through our programs, we must do two things to address this powerful issue of peer acceptance. First, we must build our youth groups to have a strong sense of accepting fellowship so that students’ strongest peer relationships can be built in a Christian environment. Second, we must engage in serious relationships with students so that we meet their peers and observe the influence that is present.
If I challenge my students about the dangers of being a “chameleon,” always changing its colors to protect itself by adapting to the environment, they are sure to feel convicted about the negative influence of their peers, but they may feel powerless to change. It is only with strong support from me or other youth leaders that they are ever able to break away from their peers. If I am to be effective, I must realize the intense need my students have for their peers, and then I can challenge and direct them to keep their peer need under God’s control.
4. The church or youth group. Understanding the contemporary world of the teenagers with whom we work does not always take place outside of the youth group. As a matter of fact, quite a lot can be learned through listening to and observing our own church kids.
I used to refuse students the right to bring their radios or tape decks on retreats. Now I allow it. Why? I guess I didn’t want to fool myself into thinking that our religious students were more saintly than they were. When they brought their tapes, I found that they were just as secular as their peers, and often just as indiscriminate as to what they listened to.
If we are honest, we will find that our Christian students aren’t all that different from their non-Christian peers. Our Christian students may not drink or take drugs, but many romanticize what it would be like to get drunk or high. They may be sexual virgins, but this may be more from lack of opportunity than from spiritual convictions.
We learn about the world of our youth group kids the same way we learn about the school environment: we listen, hang around, and spend time with students. Sometimes I pretend to be the first one asleep in the cabin on a retreat just so that I can hear the conversations that go on “behind my back.” I also enjoy the long rides to retreat locations or on mission teams because in these times students open up and tell me some of the deepest things about themselves.
Understanding the world within our youth groups requires some vulnerability on our part. First, it requires us to accept that many of our young people will be spiritual schizophrenics; they can talk about their devotion to the Lord in one breath and be telling their girlfriends that they are “hot-blooded” in the next.
Second, it requires us to recognize our own hypocrisies and the hypocrisies of the adults in our church (including some of the parents of the group members). If we are honest, we will see that teenagers are just like us, and seeing their spiritual shallowness will be a rebuke to our own.
5. Their individual worlds. The invention of the Walk-Man, the coming of cable television, and the rental of movies to be shown at home points to a basic desocialization occurring within our society. As a result, an increasing number of teenagers withdraw into themselves, making it almost impossible for parents and concerned adults to know what’s going on inside them.
If the family and the school worlds are hard to enter, the individual, inner world of the teenager is almost impossible to penetrate. We can only surmise what’s going on in there by external behaviors and self-revelation from the teenagers them¬selves
In general, however, we can make some basic observations that can help us to understand and to meet the teenager’s needs.
a. Today’s teenagers feel at odds with the world. This is a general result of the artificial world of adolescence; students feel they don’t belong to the world of children or to the world of the adult. Physically and socially they feel awkward, so again they retreat to the only people they think will understand: their peers. By themselves, they feel “embarrassed to be alive,” as one writer put it.
b. Today’s teenagers feel unsure about themselves. Teenagers have a special sense of insecurity because choices, the future, and the fear of failure loom over them like a guillotine about to drop. Their weak self-esteem makes them vulnerable to criticism, ridicule, and the fear of rejection.
c. Today’s teenagers want help but are often afraid to ask. Christianity Today published an interview with youth experts entitled “The Myth of the Generation Gap.” The experts made this point: students are more responsive to parents and adults than we usually give them credit for. There is something going on inside their heads, and one of those things is what Strommen calls a “cry” for help—”Help me understand myself, the world, and where I fit in.”
Understanding that there is a lot going on inside of our young people can help us probe more deeply to find out where their hurts are and how we can understand these needs. With this type of understanding in mind, our programs can be geared to greater effectiveness.
IDENTIFY, DON’T BECOME IDENTICAL
We try to understand our teenagers’ worlds not to become like them but to address their needs more effectively. Pat Hurley warns us against adopting adolescent behavior: “Being ‘real’ in the youth culture does not mean trying to be a ‘kid.’ You are an adult who relates to the youth mindset. Being a free person, a person that they can trust, will provide an environment of spontaneity and flexibility wherever you go, whether it’s a one-on-one appointment to get a Coke, a youth group meeting, or a Sunday school class.”
MORE TIPS FOR KEEPING FRESH
Understanding and responding to the teenage world takes work, as we have already observed. There are, however, some practical ways that we can learn about the youth culture in order to try to determine teenagers’ needs.
Consider these tips:
• Listen to the radio stations your students listen to. Why do they listen? What makes certain disk jockeys more likeable than others? What are the words of the most popular songs saying about life? Love? Values?
• Watch the most popular TV shows. Why are they popular? What do students enjoy in them?
• See the current hit movies. Why are they teenage hits? Who are the heroes? What is the message?
• Read a book about adolescent development. Where do your students fit into the ideas of this book?
• Read a book about adolescent trends. Do you see these trends in the young people of your city or town? Why or why not?
• Read newsletters about youth events and trends. Ask if they apply to the young people you know (always be careful in responding to “trends”; remember that these newsletters are written by adults for adults, and students don’t often reduce themselves to easily identifiable trends).
• Take a few formal or informal surveys. This can be done in a group or one-on-one. A survey also can be a series of questions that you ask students without ever asking them to record their answers.
• Talk to school teachers or administrators. What trends do they see? What needs are they confronting in the students of your community?
• Look over the school calendar. What events will attract the most students? Why?
• Find out who the most popular students are in school. Why are they popular? If there are no dominant popular students, what does this say about the sense of community at the school?
Understanding teenagers is a tough task, but some creative research into the worlds in which they live can help us understand their needs and address our youth ministries and programs to these needs.
The above article, “Keeping Fresh,” was written by Paul Borthwick. The article was excerpted from chapter 7 in Borthwick’s book, Organizing Your Youth Ministry.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”