“When did you get your ears pierced?” “When did you start on your path to becoming a pastor?” “What’s your favorite kind of music?”
These were just a few of the questions I was asked by our 7th graders after I was done teaching my lesson on the Third Commandment. We had 12 minutes left in the period so I decided to do something that I had been learning about in my class on youth and young adult ministry at Fordham University. Let the students ask questions about me: the person, teacher and pastor.
It’s understood that children who are in early adolescence are beginning the process of identifying with those who are significant to them. It’s called the process of identification and one of the best ways for adults to have an impact on this identity is for them to share and model a way of life. In other words, it’s important for adults to share their story with them but not in the cliché sort of way where the adult tells them what they want them to know about them. Early adolescents are beginning their search of who are they are and what they are going to be. They’re trying to figure out what they are going to take with them from childhood. What from church, school, friends, family and the world do they want as their own? They’re asking of these questions is part of that process. They truly want to know more about the adults around them and how they got to where they are. This can help provide them in discerning their very own calling, whatever it may be. If they are able to learn and observe positive words and actions from a Christian who has been where they have been that will most likely have a positive impact on their development into adulthood. Part of this depends on adults being willing to be vulnerable about their own life experiences. It can’t be as scripted as maybe we’d like it to be nor should we simply see seek to give a sort of testimonial.
One of the strange things revealed about the development of adolescents is that in many regards they are the least controllable age group. The reason being is that, as I mentioned earlier, they are in the process of forming their own faith and trying to figure out what they believe on their own terms. What makes this even more challenging is that they are the main target of a consumer based culture and live in the midst of a pluralistic age that is at their finger tips. Thus, we form them into skeptics and therefore it becomes incumbent upon them to go and search for what is real. Oddly enough, we need to walk with them and we need to be willing to let them go understanding that it’s on God to bring them back, or at the least, to guide them to where they need to go. Strangely enough, adolescents may simply serve as a reminder to a church so often obsessed with the latest fad or the most effective way to increase church attendance that we are really not in control, rather God is.
In closing, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College, Thomas Groome, uses the story of the Prodigal Son as a way to highlight a praxis for serving adolescents. Groome notes that the rebellious son was actually doing something that is developmentally quite normal. He needed to strike out on his own, to figure things out and the Father lets him. Despite the son’s rudeness and audacity the Father graciously lets him leave. He gives up control. What’s often overlooked is that he also does this with the older son. He lets the older son flip out at him and protest the welcoming home of the prodigal. The older son, like the younger son when he left, acts independently of his Father when he communicated his own thoughts about what had happened. Similarly, the Father is gracious to the older son. Maybe the gracious Father is the model for approaching adolescents.