Alone

Yesterday I sat in a restaurant on my drive back from a speaking engagement and voices grew loud behind me.

“You don’t understand!”

“I understand perfectly. You’re failing.”

The voices were growing loud enough that people at other tables were pausing and awkwardly looking over at the commotion.

I snuck a glance. A teenage boy, probably 16 or 17-years-old, was typing on his phone, trying his best to ignore his mom while she sat across the table from him with her arms crossed.

She continued. “Your not even going to graduate if you keep this up.”

The kid didn’t even look up from his phone. “So! I’ll just work at McDonalds and get my own place. I don’t need school!”

The bantering continued. Eventually the dad arrived at the table from the bathroom. Now it was two of them on one side of the table, looking across the four foot divide with disdain.

I’m not judging. There were huge problems on each side of that table. I would have loved to give “McDonalds” kid an honest glimpse into his future, maybe even show him a simple chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the difference in employment possibilities between a person with a bachelors degree and someone with just a high school diploma. And I would have loved to chat with those parents about “bonding vs boundaries.” I’ve been on that side of the table. It ain’t easy.

But I think the element that struck me the most was both sides obviously felt alone.

Today’s teenagers are lonely, and they’re looking for connection in the wrong places.

Today’s parents feel helpless, and many parents in this situation are too embarrassed to reach out for help from others. Especially if our kids are rebelling against the way they were raised.

So the gap only widens. Teens think, “My parents are stupid. They don’t understand.”

Parents think, “This narcissistic little brat. I’d like to take that phone away and throw it off a cliff!”

These parents aren’t alone. I’m noticing a growing divide between teen and adult culture. It would be silly to point fingers at one cause, because I’m sure it’s a mixed bag of nuts, including extended adolescence, enabling, helicopter parenting (yes, those two are almost opposite), the influence of entertainment media, etc.

The big question I have is, how are we as whole (pastors, youth workers, parents, grandparents) responding to this growing divide?

Two Opposite Approaches
I can’t help but think of two types of churches I’ve visited in the last few months. One of them I’ll call the Gap church. The church has a noticeable divide between adults and kids, and the programs only feed that divide. It is just like Thanksgiving in many homes across America with the kids’ table and the adult table. And just like Kara Powell notes in her Sticky Faith research, on Sunday morning young people go one way, and adults go another way.

This particular type of church runs a “youth service” every service at the same time as “big church.” So most families don’t see each other at all Sunday morning. Kids go one way, adults another. It’s we and they. Kids don’t even want to go to big church.

Let that sink in for a moment. Ask yourself: what is the possibility these kids are going to go to church when they are out of the house own their own?

But then I witnessed another type of church that had a more “it takes a village” approach. This church doesn’t run any youth programs Sunday morning other than for young children. This accomplished two things:

  1. Families went to church together, sat together and hung out together for Sunday mornings. Youth ministry happened midweek.
  2. The youth pastors weren’t burnt out running program (that other church can’t keep a youth pastor).

As a result, the “it takes a village” church connected countless adults with young people. Kids aren’t just hanging with kids (although they have plenty of time to do that mid week), they are interacting with adult friends, parents of friends, grandparents, pastors… the whole church community. Then midweek those kids are connecting with adult mentors in their small groups and Bible studies.

Sticky Faith found this “it takes a village approach” huge in applying faith to daily life:

“The more adult mentors who seek out students and help them apply faith to daily life, the better. Among 13 different ways adults support high school kids, two variables stood out as significantly related to sticky faith over time: feeling sought out by adults and feeling like those adults ‘helped me to realistically apply my faith to my daily life.'”

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there is only one correct model. I know some churches attempt life-stage groups (adult Sunday school, young people Sunday School) AND then go to big church together. That works for some. The point is simple. Are we encouraging venues where adults connect with kids… or are we feeding the divide?

I think back to that awkward moment last night with the bratty teen staring at his phone.

“I don’t need school. I’ll just work at McDonalds.”

What if he had a coach he could talk with about that? What if he had an uncle? A youth pastor? His best friend’s dad? His small group leader?

What if he had ALL of those mentors in his life?

I’ve worked with teenagers long enough to tell you with confidence… that kid had none of those people in his life.

Who do your kids have?

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over twenty books including the brand new If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; Sex Matters; The Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket; and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers; Connect; and the 10-Minute Talks series. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.
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One Response to Alone

  1. Dave Lenehan says:

    Jonathan, this article is excellent. If ALL parents could read this before their kids enter middle school. Mentor, mentor, mentor. And as you so correctly noted, we the church need to at the same time step up and step into the lives of these kids, to make the connection, not wait to be asked once parents are desperate.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. It hit home for me after a conversation I had with my niece about her young teenage son.

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