The spiritual formation of young people is a vital if overlooked aspect of the life of the church. This week, we’re exploring the issue/crisis/opportunity of children and youth in emerging communities. But one of the first things we need to do is uncover our perceptions, ideas, assumptions, and presuppositions about young people. We need to take some time and reflect theologically on what it means to be a child and youth in today’s church.
This theological reflection is especially vital because our society often holds ambivalent views of children and youth—we don’t really know what we think/believe about them. We simultaneously have different and even competing ideas about young people. In Welcoming Children, practical theologian Joyce Ann Mercer states that North America’s consumer-driven society is perhaps the epitome of this ambivalence: “they adulate children as the key to corporate profits, and despise children when they fail to fit into market agendas or when their needs and experiences press our collective interests in the direction of social goals and norms that conflict with those of the market” (119).
This ambivalence was evident in a TV commercial that ran a few years ago. Take a look at it here. A father sits on his couch watching a hockey game as his son peeks around the corner and says he’s having trouble falling asleep. Dad, looking somewhat annoyed, realizes that he can use the miracle of personal video recording to pause the game and attend to his son. Then he shows the boy a goal and they watch the last few minutes of the game together.
Now, this father appears to be a guy who loves his hockey but made the ultimate sacrifice to pause the live game and take care of his son. But I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been a PVR subscriber. What would he have done if he couldn’t pause TV? Would he, to use the words from the commercial, paused life? Would he have turned off the game, sacrificing his only opportunity to see the last few minutes in order to help out his son? Or would he simply have said, “Go get your mother”? I am left wondering… And I’m also left wondering if the lyrics to the song in the background—“I will be the one who love you the most”—are being sung about the child or the TV.
This is clearly an ambivalent view of children that seems to be prevalent throughout North America. And more and more, this ambivalence is creeping into the church as we allow our ideas about children, youth, and spiritual formation to be guided by our mass-marketed, consumeristic, narcissistic society. Through the lure of society’s Sirens, we too have become ambivalent in our views of children and youth. We love them, want to spend time with them, and be there when they need us. But are we willing to sacrifice some of our needs for theirs, to turn the TV off and help them fall asleep, and to really be care-givers? We say that relationships with teenagers matter, but we’re not willing to get to know what makes our teens tick and we don’t take the time to listen to their hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears. This ambivalence can’t go on.
So, today I’m opening a forum to combat this ambivalence. Through responses to this blog posting, share what you believe children and youth to be. Feel free to draw from biblical, theological, and sociological ideas about what exactly it means to be a young person. Let’s get our ideas out in the open and begin seriously considering the young people who we want to shape into authentic disciples of Christ. When we have a better sense of the phenomena of childhood and adolescence, we can be better prepared to nurture their faith and spirituality. Through this cyber-based group theological reflection, we can gain a clearer and theologically-grounded sense of the young people in our midst. So join the conversation.