Has anyone else noticed the large, obnoxious black birds that have invaded Wal-Mart parking lots over the last 10 years? I call them Wal-Mart Birds. I just now googled them and found out they’re really called great-tailed grackles. They wander through parking lots, eating bugs off of the fronts of cars and trash off the ground. They are aggressive, loud, hungry, and poop a lot.
I’m sitting here in a coffee shop this afternoon watching a grackle go to town eating all the bugs off the front of my car. One time I ate outside at the Chipotle down the street, and a grackle screamed at me the entire time I was eating because I wouldn’t share my burrito. Stupid bird. Go eat a worm.
Bear with me, because I promise there is a point to all this. But first let me tell you a little more about the grackle.
The grackles are native to Central America and were only found as far north as the southern tip of Texas not so many years ago… Now they fill parking lots as far north and west as Washington State. In some places they make so much noise (and poop) that cities are hiring people to chase them away at night in very creative ways (firecrackers and lasers). It doesn’t matter though. Chase one flock off and another takes its place. Parking lots have become their preferred habitat.
I’ve been wondering what the long-term impact of life in parking lots will be for this bird. Their population seems to be exploding right now because the easy life in Wal-Mart parking lots is particularly conducive to grackle population growth. Are they learning to thrive in a controlled environment that doesn’t really reflect the real world, where freshly squashed bugs roll in on car hood platters every few moments? What would happen to them if they had to survive in the wild again? Would a grackle, born in a parking lot median and raised on such easy fare, be able to find food on its own in the wild?
Of course, I really don’t care that much about the future of the grackle. I’m writing this because sometimes these grackles remind me of the teenagers I work with each week… You know, aggressive, loud, hungry, poop a lot (JH boys, I’m looking at you)…
If those were the only parallels, I wouldn’t be worried. The teens will grow out of those things. (Or most of them will at least.) But I am worried about their future, for much the same reason as I worry about the grackles: I worry that youth groups are controlled environments that don’t really reflect the real world. I worry that we are raising young Christians who won’t be able to survive in the wild, that your average youth group isn’t preparing young Christians to move on to be mature in their faith.
And it’s not an unfounded fear either. All I have to do is look at my own generation. Many of us came up through youth group, but not so many of us are left in the Church today. Sending kids to youth group didn’t have the results that many adults in the church were hoping for.
Some would blame ‘liberal’ colleges for leading our young Christians astray. They’d say that our kids were perfectly fine and believed everything they were supposed to until they went off to that liberal college, and that kids who go to Christian colleges are kept much safer, but it turns out that that answer is way too simplistic.
Sure, some young people have gone to a state college and easily drifted away from the faith, maybe influenced by their professors, more influenced by peer pressures, both academic and social. But some haven’t drifted. Some have come through stronger than when they went in.
I, on the other hand, attended a conservative Christian college, and the number of my classmates who have either downright abandoned the faith or quietly fallen away is far too high if the answer to producing vital Christians is simply to shelter our young in protective Christian environments.
In fact, a study by sociologist Christian Smith has shown that, for students with an active faith, attending college increases your chances of maintaining your faith, regardless of whether the college is Christian or secular. The type of college does is not what makes faith thrive. Faith thrives when you make it a priority in your life.
If that’s true, then something else must be at work here, something more than choosing which college to attend, something that I think is missing in the environment of our youth groups themselves.
Youth groups are not teaching kids to think for themselves or to process life in light of their faith (and vice versa). Instead, most youth groups that I have seen are centered around teaching a lesson that presents truth for kids to absorb. It is a very passive learning, instead of engaged practice. I’ve been guilty of this for four years.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with truth, of course. But truth alone without the tools to put it into practice is about as useless as a nail without a hammer. Or as a bird that only knows how to find food on car bumpers.
I assume that the grackles still know how to go out and find bugs in the wild, but do they really? If they do, will their children, raised in parking lots? Have they really learned what it means to be a grackle, or just an cheap knock-off? Will their beaks someday evolve to make them even better suited for pulling bug guts off of bumpers, Darwin’s finches for 21st century America? Will there some day be a bird species whose natural habitat is a parking lot and which can exist nowhere else?
Are we raising Christians who can exist within the church, but nowhere else, whose natural habitat is a youth center? We need youth who can process complex ideas and discern good from bad, not in terms of black and white, but within gray. We need teens whose faith won’t fall like a Jenga tower the moment one tenet of their belief is questioned, regardless of where they go to college. We need teens with spirituality that goes deep, with a relationship with Jesus that endures the times of questioning, doubting, and hurting that will come.
The answer isn’t to insulate them or to expose them. It’s to teach them to think. Christianity today requires Christians who can think for themselves, who can feed themselves, yet our youth groups are better designed to produce baby Christians who still need to be fed by someone else, or else their faith will die. What is the point of that?
I’m not talking about needing to teach a Biblical worldview here. OK, I actually may be talking about that in reality, but not in the way I hear it’s proponents talk about it, because once again, giving kids a Biblical worldview often just boils down to giving them all the answers, answers that WILL be contested as life unfolds for them.
As a teacher, it’s easy to give answers. It’s much more difficult to equip your students to be able to find solutions in real life situations. But for some reason, we tend to think about this backwards. Youth leaders think that giving answers to tough questions IS equipping kids for faith. But it’s not. It’s spoon-feeding. It’s milk, not solid food. It’s where we might have to start, but it’s never where we should end up.
If you just give your child the answers to their math homework, so that they never have to learn how to arrive at those answers, they’re going to be bad at math. If we just give kids our beliefs without teaching them how to arrive at those beliefs on their own, their going to be bad at faith.
Our youth need to be taught how to think. Not WHAT to think; HOW to think. In a religion that defines itself around orthodox beliefs from which you must not stray lest you be labeled a heretic, there has always been a stigma against thinking for yourself. Yet, the ability to think for yourself is crucial if you are going to make sense of orthodox beliefs in a very chaotic and unorthodox world. Teaching our teens to think is teaching them to survive.
Do we interpret Scripture for them? Or do we help them learn to interpret Scripture? Do we pray for them? Or do we teach them to pray? Are we teaching them that murder is wrong? Or are we preparing them to value life? Are we telling them that sex before marriage is bad? Or are we giving them a bigger idea about purity that affects their thoughts and their words and introducing them to a God who will transform how they view themselves and others?
And then in all of these, do we walk beside them and show them how? How to interpret, to pray, to value life, to have a life transformed by God?
This is where it gets hard to follow through. Because when it really comes down to it, we don’t choose to give answers because they are better, we choose answers because they are easier. It is easier for us. It requires less of us as leaders, and it leaves our students with less. Helping them learn to interpret Scripture is a lot more demanding than simply telling them what it says.
I certainly don’t mean that all youth ministries and youth pastors and youth sponsors are doing an awful job. I’m writing this first for myself, and then for anyone else who needs it.
As a youth leader, I know I need to do a better job here. My teens need to go deeper, go wider. I’m pretty sure that the existing models of youth ministry won’t get the majority of them there, and so I am searching for a better way.