youth ministry

My Sanctuary

Ugh. Another parking ticket. I think I already had about 10 of them. While I never intended to pay them I was still embarrassed to get ticket after ticket for parking in the women’s basketball coaches spot. She never seemed to use it anyway and the walk from the visitors lot was long. Plus, tickets were for rich kids.

I dropped the ticket on the ground and got back into my 1978 Ford LTD Station Wagon to begin the drive home.

It was the Winter of 1994 and I was spending a lot of time in Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library. You might know the building as Touchdown Jesus but I know the building as my sanctuary.

My senior year of high school was complicated.

While I did my best to maintain a front that everything was OK, everything wasn’t OK.

After spending my junior year in Germany with my mom I moved in with my dad for my senior year.

My hope was to move home and resume my life. My reality was that I’d exchanged one chaotic situation with my mom for an even more chaotic situation with my dad. While his marriage to my stepmom wouldn’t end for a couple more years the volcano of their relationship erupted over and over again. It was pretty rough. I moved in, then we moved out, then we moved back in– on and on this went. I think I moved in and out of that house 7 times in 10 months.

When we were home I tried to avoid being there as much as possible. And when we lived with grandma I tried to stay out until after she went to bed. I spent as much time as I could at school. But eventually the janitors would ask me to leave and I’d have to go somewhere else.

Hesburgh Library was on my way home from school. It was both a logical and welcoming place for me to hang out. While I wasn’t a student no one ever asked me if I belonged. As long as I was quiet, doing homework, and didn’t break rules I knew no one would complain. I was good at blending in, knew enough about Notre Dame to fake it if I got into a conversation, and knew they weren’t going to put me in Leprechaun Jail if I got caught.

So I’d disappear for hours into the stacks to read, research, dream, nap, and explore.

To graduate I needed to pass gym. So I had little homework. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t learning. I’d grab a novel off the shelf or dig into an autobiography of someone I’d never heard of. They’d refer to a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with so I’d head over to the microfilm and read the New York Times from those days to find out what the author was referring to. Anything to pass the time.

As the weeks went by I got lost in reading newspapers from the Great Depression. Over time I got pretty good at finding stuff and operating the microfilm… and then I started helping the librarian show students how to find what they were looking for. And that lead to even more time in the library “studying.” (This was a great way to meet female students, by the way.)

At a time in my life when I didn’t feel welcome at home– or really even have a home to feel welcome in– I felt welcome in the library. More than a place I trespassed at or occasionally got a parking ticket for squatting on the women’s basketball coaches parking spot, it was a sanctuary of comfort and predictability that I desperately needed.

Do you work with teenagers? Help them find their place of sanctuary. Don’t ever assume that because they look OK or aren’t saying they aren’t OK that everything is fine. Sometimes the best thing you can do isn’t talk… it’s help them find a place where they can just be.

youth ministry

4 Ways We Hold High School Students Back

Photo by Megan Ann via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In reading Robert Epstein’s book, Teen 2.0, the one thing that fundamentally shifted my thinking is that adults lament about childish behavior while simultaneously funding and celebrating it.

Politely, Epstein says we have infantalized our youth. Maybe we need to take it a step further? We treat our young like pets.

4 Quick Examples to Illustrate that Point

  1. We spend bagillions of dollars on the Rule of Law and Regulation of Teenagers: In the last 40 years we have created an immense amount of laws aimed at regulating behavior of those under 18. We force them to go to school. We regulate where they can go when school is out. We regulate when they can be out. We tell them what they can wear. Who they can be with. What they can ingest or not ingest. Epstein did a study comparing inmates to high school students and found that men in prison have more freedoms. But magically, despite 18 years old not being a significant number in physical or emotional development, we have decided that those over 18 can do whatever they want.
  2. We Celebrate Low Expectations: We have removed adult expectations from high school students. They can’t be bothered to even get out of bed in the summer, right? Forget the fact that physically high school students are near the pinnacle of their strength and can outwork their parents. Forget the fact that the adolescent brain is mostly ready to tackle adulthood, ever seen what happens when a teenage son asks his mom to help him with his physics homework? And forget the fact that teenagers can do amazing things. (Like say, discover a cancer treatment for a high school science fair) Instead of ramping up expectations for them, in our wealth, we remove expectations of productivity. We even limit the ability to have expectations of our high school students. Instead, we slyly whine about our teenage children at home and what they won’t do. Or a post-college student who has moved home but can’t find the right job.
  3. We have an unlimited spending appetite for teenage sexuality: Think of how many billions of dollars are spent annually preventing teen pregnancy? BILLIONS! But not nearly as many billions as are spent celebrating adolescent sex in advertising, television, movies, etc. Our culture has an obsession with adolescent sexuality. It’s taboo. And that taboo drives our spending on both prevention and celebration. Since we’ve labeled high school students as children, this forces a label that their sexual activities as irresponsible. Meanwhile everything in pop culture celebrates adolescent virility and fertility. (Television, music, news media, movies, etc.) Physically, the average 16 year old is completely ready for sex. But if that 16 year old wants to have a serious, long-term relationship? Oh heck no! We need to prevent it. We argue that they aren’t emotionally ready for a sexual relationship. (Hypocritically, we were but deny that even happened. And our great-grandparents married at 16 and had our grandparents at 19. Today’s teen pregnancy tragedy was yesterday’s normal sexual expectation.) Meanwhile, our Christian constructions argue for waiting until marriage… something which we’ve delayed almost 10 years on average in just 100 years! The average first marriage for a woman in the U.S. is now 26.5 years old.
  4. We Spend a Lot Keeping Teenagers Out of the Workplace: Up until the Great Depression most adolescents didn’t finish high school and entered the trades, farming, or a factory to work full-time. For the most part that is now illegal. We’ve regulated the types of and length of employment adolescents can participate in. We’ve created a false expectation that every student should go to college. (A notion our economy cannot support.) But we’ve created a multi-trillion dollar industry called compulsory high school we can’t bear to let go of or adjust in all of its disfunction. Instead, we now expect that students won’t go to work, earn money for their families, or otherwise contribute because they will perpetually get education for things they don’t want to study. We expect them to consume. And we’ve created industries around entertaining them so they have something to do while not working or not learning. (Sports, video games, summer school, camps, etc.)

Is it no wonder why this period of adolescence has extended from 4-5 years in the 1940s to 13-14 years today? 

Maybe it is time we reverse this trend? Maybe we need to start by getting out of the way and allowing adolescents to become adults?

Talk Notes

You Want Who to Do Whaaaaa-aaat?

This morning I have the honor of teaching at Encounter, the high school ministry of Journey Community Church.

I’m kicking off a series called Sea Jesus. And basically it’s stuff that Jesus has to teach us while he’s near the Sea of Galilee.

Like everything else I produce that I’m at liberty to share, I’ve made all of my notes, handouts, slides, and even Photoshop files available in my free section.

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