“EMILY’S POST” is written this week by John Thornton, Associate Pastor for Youth, Adults & Missions

“Take a few minutes and just write down three words that you think describe your life right now.” That was how I opened the first of three group conversations with our youth on our retreat two weeks ago. I wanted to know what they see going on in their world and give them space to talk about it.

In his book “Kids These Days,” author Malcolm Harris writes about 30 years of transformation in the lives of millennials and the institutions that form us. His chapter on childhood and schooling reveals some disturbing trends in the lives of students. In short, at an ever earlier age our youth are forced to consider their lives to be business investments for the future. Both school and social life are viewed through the lens of what will payoff the best when they enter the workforce. This has lead to an increase in school work. Students now do more homework and spend more time in class than they did 30 years ago. In addition to more work, students are feeling more pressure to succeed with high stakes testing and the insistence to think about college and beyond at a younger and younger age. In one study Harris’ cites he finds that children are less happy than they were 30 years ago and the reason is simple: they do less of the things that make them happy like eating together and enjoying unstructured free time and more of the things that make them especially unhappy like homework and listening to lectures. This has led to an increase in both anxiety and depression at a younger and younger age.

It turns out that increased work combined with the expectations of determining a career path at a younger age mixed with the pressure to avoid failure for fear of ruining one’s career chances have a detrimental effect on the lives of young people nation-wide.

The question for me as the minister to our youth is what to do about these changes. This is different terrain than youth ministry treaded 30 years ago. One answer was our retreat two weeks ago. I made a distinct effort to ensure we did not operate with a rigid schedule, that our conversations did not mirror their school lectures, and that they did not have to engage in competitive games unless they chose to. The weekend was 10 students in a cabin with a couple of chaperones doing things they enjoyed. We worked on a puzzle, played “lots” of card games, had a movie night, and went on a hike around the campsite.

But this did not come at the sacrifice of intentional, Scripture guided conversation. When the students described their lives they came up with the following words: transitions, busy/involved, uncertain, exhausting (a strong consensus), stressful, complicated, pressured, and beautiful. One 6th grader described filling out a “Life Plan” exercise in which she had to carefully consider what kind of work she would do and what she would spend her money on later in life. A junior told the group she had to pick her classes weighing what she wanted to major in. Every single one described the stress of receiving updates on their grades sent directly to their phones at any moment of the day or night.

We later talked about what we as a youth group can do differently. They came up with a plan for what they want their church to be, a place of rest and refuge, where they can retreat to without fear of outsized expectations or lectures. They love God and love the church, but they need that love to look different than it has in the past. They need a place to be with their friends. This does not mean they do not want to talk about God or what it means to be a Christian in the world. Far from it. They simply want it to look different, and as I’ve told our congregation: God isn’t scared of change and neither are we.

I thank God for our youth, for the way they force us to refocus on what’s important. They are a gift to our church and after a weekend away with them I can tell you: the future of our church is bright.

John Thornton
Associate Pastor for Youth, Adults & Missions

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