"Growing Up in America" Response Paper
by Ryan C. Nielsen
America is known as "the Melting Pot" of the world. While most people cognitively realize this, they often don't think about it being that way in their own back yard. Many suburban youth pastors mentally know about the different cultures and classes that exist all throughout the United States, but these often seem quite distant to the youth pastor. As a result many things are not considered when the suburban youth pastor plans the ministries that will occur throughout the year. Contrary to what may appear to be the case, there are three factors which influence and color every youth ministry, urban or suburban, and these must be considered for effective ministry. The primary group, the responsibility, and the apathy that youth are experiencing today has required the process and functioning of youth ministry to change.
Primary groups may be less evident in suburban youth ministries, but they play just as significant a role in every youth's life. "Almost every teenager belongs to...a primary group--a small circle of friends or associates who interact intensely with him or her almost daily" (51). Tied closely with the primary groups are the youth subcultures to which the primary groups are subsets. Youth pastors need to not only be aware of the subcultures, and more specifically, the primary groups, but they need to provide an atmosphere in which Christian primary groups are established. "Primary groups don't necessarily form accidentally. They can be deliberately created, and they can be programmed to communicate a particular value system and enforce particular behavior patterns" (55). Because youth are so easily influenced, and because the decisions made while a teenager will affect the rest of the youth's life, it is essential that they are taught positive values. Simply teaching positive values, though, is not enough. The youth pastor must reach beyond teaching into the daily life of youth--into their primary groups. Some sociologists believe that "primary groups [are] the most important sociological agencies in molding personality and determining how people will act in their everyday lives" (56). This in turn affects every decision and action in which a person will engage and the value system they will hold on to.
The primary group to which a student belongs will affect most every aspect of his or her life. Through the primary group a young person establishes a personal identity and patterns of behavior. "The extent to which the social forces of either the culture or the subculture affect a particular teenager is determined by his or her primary group" (51). It is this group which will tell the person what to do, or what not to do, regardless of the culture or subculture's standards. The primary group determines what is acceptable and "cool" regardless of the messages given from all other groups. It is exactly for this reason that youth pastors should focus on creating Christian primary groups, or the environment for these groups to be established.
Living the Christian life is very difficult, especially in American society today. People are constantly bombarded with messages contrary to what Christianity teaches. While issues are important to discuss with our youth in order to teach them the Biblical standards regarding these areas of interest, youth pastors today often overlook the importance of the primary group within the youth subculture. Youth pastors often figure that if they address the larger issues of the youth subculture, that will lead students into making "proper" decisions. But, "only by having intimate relationships with close friends who affirm their beliefs and assure them that their chosen way of life is not crazy will young people have the courage and fortitude to carry out their commitments" (57). Therefore, while the issues are important, it will be the support of the primary group regarding the decisions about these issues that will secure a person's lifestyle. If we are going to expect our youth to live a Christian life, we must not only focus on the issues concerning the youth, but we must make it a goal to develop and support Christian primary groups amongst the youth.
While Junior High kids rely greatly upon their primary group, there is a part of them that is screaming out for help. Today's junior highers are facing problems and issues that adolescents didn't face until high school ten years ago. "Consequently, it may be time for us to recognize that junior high ministry is most important" (123). Regardless of which is most important, though, we need to focus on the reasons that adolescents are growing up faster. We also need to consider the other influences in their lives besides the primary groups and how we as youth workers should deal with these issues.
There are numerous factors which have played a part in junior highers growing up so quickly. One significant factor is that of the family. Most adolescents now grow up in homes of either single parents, or of dual working parents. "With this diminishing presence of parents in their lives, junior high students are left with the freedom to do what they want to do, to be pretty much what they choose to be" (119). Many sociologists and psychologists feel that this freedom is more than most junior high students can handle. Often times, then, students may be seeking guidance within their youth ministries. As a youth pastor, one must be aware of this need, and try to avoid contributing to their "hard freedom." Contrary to what many junior high students say, many of them wish they had "more restraints on their behavior" (120). This is a fine line for youth pastors, and certainly one does not want to over-step their bounds and step on the toes of parents. One needs to be constantly praying for guidance and direction in this area.
Another area of great influence on adolescents, as well as contributing to their early emersion into adulthood is television. While peer groups exercise great influence on teenagers, they function primarily as enforcers of values and lifestyles prescribed by the electronic media. "Because of diminishing parental guidance, junior high students now get their directives from their peers--and from television" (120). So, even though the primary group determines a great amount in a teenager's life, television presents a strong influence not only on the individual, but on the entire primary group as well. It is important for a youth pastor to consider all these things and explore new ways to convey the truth to junior high minds. Due to the strong influence of the primary groups, it may be most effective to get the teens into a different setting than they are used to on a regular basis--away from their daily life routine. For each youth group, the approach will be different. There is one thing that appears to be true, though. Youth pastors need to be willing to stretch beyond what they may be used to, but it is also essential that they provide direction, guidance, and discipline for the teens in his or her group.
One of the greatest obstacles youth pastors face among our teens is apathy. Like many other things, apathy seems to be greater among our teens today than it ever has been before. For many of us, this idea seems contradictory when we juxtapose the teens' lives next to the growth of electronic media. It would seem as if teens have so many things in their lives today that they would not be able to be apathetic. But on the contrary, the growth of the electronic media has inspired greater apathy. "[Youth] evidence an apathy in their character and a lack of vitality in their corruption" (147). We are facing an increasingly passionless generation. "We have jaded them with so much artificially generated 'excitement' that it has become difficult for them to find anything to be authentically enthusiastic about" (148). This becomes an essential issue for the youth pastor. We need to remember that it is quite difficult to influence a teenager to live a Christian life when they have no passion for Christ.
Due to the varied theories as to why the youth of today are so apathetic, youth pastors need to be sensitive and open to their individual youth group. The youth pastor needs to be among the youth, finding out exactly what is causing their apathy. We need to provide for the youth a purpose and goal, that is both reasonable and reachable. We also need to share the greatness of Christ, giving our youth hopes and dreams within the Christian lifestyle. If the current ideas concerning the apathy that youth have are correct, our job as youth workers is clear. "We must inspire young people to greatness. By helping young people see themselves as agents of God's revolution, commissioned to a vocation of ultimate importance, we con provide them with a sense of calling that generates unparalleled enthusiasm for life" (153). So instead of planning all kinds of parties, and showing the "hippest" videos in youth group, youth pastors need to re-focus on the greatness of Christ.
Youth pastors face many obstacles throughout their career. While many have said that this generation is the most difficult to reach, they also can be some of the easiest to touch. Time seems to be the key. The time that a youth pastor is willing to give to the youth can make a great difference not only in the youth program, but in each individual's life as well. Youth pastors also need to be aware of the youth culture, and what is influencing their lives, and to what extent. It is a constant educational process for any youth pastor, but one that can bear much fruit.
© 1996 by Ryan C. Nielsen