I have a little piece of paper here on my desk that reads “Wednesday-teenagers.” (Yes, this is truly a Pulitzer class operation here.) It reminds me to continue our professional development theme of last week involving the adolescent mind and faith formation. Fittingly it is not yet 8 AM and I have already gotten some helpful prompts: for starters, today is the feast of St. Martha, the only person in history to be admonished by Jesus himself to “lighten up.” Then, as I scoured my New York Times e-subscription, I came across a masterful editorial by Frank Bruni entitled “Today’s Exhausted Superkids.” Both factors weigh into the challenge of teenaged-catechetics.
Bruni lists about a half dozen books of very recent vintage—including Overloaded and Underprepared, when hit the bookstores this week—that raise serious questions about the push for highly competitive secondary school success. Bruni himself notes that a serious physical and developmental issue among many teens is sleep deprivation, citing an example of one school that employs the services of a sleep counselor to reestablish healthy rest rhythms.
In truth, the entire neurobiological make-up of the teenaged brain remains something of a mystery. I would come across this when some of my teenaged patients were placed on the SSRI-family of antidepressants, “the Prozac class,” by the overseeing psychiatrist, though the attendant literature would label such usage as “off the box” (i.e., beyond the recommended usage of the manufacturer.) Dr. Gregory Lester, the Denver-based psychiatrist and expert on the treatment of personality disorders, pointed out in a recent workshop I attended that research into the growing complexity of modern life has placed more challenge upon the developing brain, to the point that emotional maturity—once the finish line of the “teenaged era”—now extends as late as 26. The Church may be more accurate than it knows when it discusses youth ministry and young adult ministry in the same breath.
It is commonplace to hear religious educators decry the practice of Confirmation as a kind of eighth grade graduation from religious training and formation; there is frequent derision of the model of “filling up the tank” of young people with the religious knowledge they will need for a lifetime. The prevailing wisdom—with which I fully concur—is a lifelong involvement in faith formation as the baptized process through all of Erikson’s stages right through the crest of old age. But I can’t help but notice how there is a double standard where teenagers are concerned, an intensity of worry coupled with an intense search for the magic bullet to reach this population before it is too late.
Some of this formative concern may be related to research and polling which shows a large number of young adults leaving Catholicism or at least not living up to its rules and practices. I see those numbers, too, but I ask a different question: what exactly are they leaving? What is a typical eighteen year old’s experience of Catholicism? At the risk of broad generalization, teens who hang in with teenaged Church programming and/or recreational opportunities with a push from their parents experience two distinct facets: an authoritative indoctrination into what they should or should not be doing, and a string of tame G-rated gatherings that do not measure up to what they themselves concoct on a regular basis. You will notice that I have not included the teenaged experience of Mass; as only 24% of adult Catholics attend in a given weekend, according to CARA, I think it is a safe bet that teenaged attendance is considerably beneath that.
The secondary school population is a unique challenge for Catholic ministers, but as a rule there are some givens we can work from. The first is that the teenaged years are a bridge (an ever lengthening bridge at that) between childhood and adulthood. There are instances where a 16 year-old will manifest the wisdom of Solomon; the next week the irresponsibility of an eight year old. How many times have I heard, “He knows how to be good; why can’t he be good all the time?” Adolescence is that painfully long stretch of aligning appropriate behaviors with favorable outcomes.
Another complaint involves compliance: why do they question everything? Why are they so resistant? I used to joke that 90% of teenagers I knew met at least some of the criteria for Oppositional Defiance Disorder. But in truth opposition or “pushing the envelope” is an age appropriate task. This is the period when adolescents bring critical thinking to the fore. “Why?” is not a dirty word. It is communication, admittedly painful. In the religious context I think that our discomfort here is the youthful tendency to point out the elephants in the living room. I mentioned last week how a group of youth ministers could not understand how their charges supported the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage. In the adolescent world of black and white and certainties, I suspect the kids just thought it was fair, a step against discrimination. Many of the Church’s teachings demand a level of comprehension that I didn’t have at 50. And let’s face it: we adults accept a number of Church teachings as a matter of loyalty, not comprehension.
There is another inconsistency here: in much of the faith formative process we actively encourage participants to tell their stories of their journeys to faith as a matter of course. By contrast, teen ministry often runs the risk of our imposing our template of where teens ought to be instead of listening and responding to their lives at this juncture. Teenagers do not despise adults or even our advice, but they do want to be treated as adults with the same respect for their experiences and their insight.
Youth ministry in particular calls for an interdisciplinary approach: input from those who deal with this population on a regular basis, such as high school guidance counselors, and those with a handle on the multi-dimensional aspects of adolescent development. Perhaps with luck your charges will not require a sleep counselor. Nor will you.