Moving into Adulthood
One of problems facing our churches in youth ministry is the number of teenagers who seem to walk away as they approach adulthood. Ben Putt has visited a Christian camp in America to see how our friends across the pond are addressing this problem.
In the summer of 2016 I had the privilege of being able to take a Sabbatical and my family and I were able to travel overseas to the USA. As part of the trip I spent a week on a summer academy for teenagers run by Wheatstone Ministries in Los Angeles. Well, someone has to!
Wheatstone exists as a year-round ministry to equip Christian teenagers to mature into adulthood. Their philosophy is that many of the problems we face in Christian teenage ministry (such as the decline in church attendance after leaving home, general apathy, etc.) come from the fact that we are dealing with people who want to be adults, treated like adults, and are adults, but are living in a culture that still assumes they are children.
For Wheatstone, it is essential that the Church is at the forefront of helping teenagers as they make the transition into adulthood; if it doesn’t, then the teenager’s church experience just becomes something that stays in childhood, and as they make the transition into adulthood by taking in other influences they leave Christianity behind.
The Academy is an intense week where all of the methods and practices of the year-round work are condensed into a short space of time resulting in a ‘rite of passage’ experience, and compared to a ‘standard’ summer camp the things they do are quite different.
Personally my natural approach if asked to run an event to help Christian teenagers to mature would be to include as much Biblical content as possible. The approach at Wheatstone remains Biblical, but also allows room for insights from anthropology, philosophy and sociology. There’s plenty I could talk about, but here are a few aspects that got me thinking:
Groups of Christian teenagers can struggle to form meaningful relationships with their peers because, apart from the unity they share in Christ, they are often quite different to each other in terms of interests and gifts.
At Wheatstone, every game/challenge/project that was set before a small group was carefully designed so that everyone had to be involved to achieve the greatest level of success. The shared experiences within these groups then served as unifying events that allowed each group to flourish together and form stronger bonds with each other than with those from outside their group.
Applied to a regular year-round ministry the challenge is to constantly be thinking about the regular program of events in such a way that the social events, the ice-breakers and the games all help to foster that unity. They are events (big or small) that will bring the group closer together and provide shared experiences where the teenagers have had to work together and as such develop a stronger bond.
One of the areas that Wheatstone recognise as an important step in maturing into Christian adulthood is learning how to think and discuss. One of the problems we face is that an average well-taught Christian teenager in a group Bible study setting will feel that they cannot challenge what the Bible appears to be saying, because they have been told that the Bible is true and contains no errors.
If they are seen to be questioning God’s word then they will be labelled as being wrong – so they don’t, or at least they don’t in public. This means that genuine issues and concerns are missed and not addressed at a crucial point in life.
To help overcome this, Wheatstone set up discussion groups looking at sections of Plato! On one hand, looking at Plato is no bad thing as his philosophical thought has affected western civilisation for 2500 years, but the main reason is to teach discussion skills. Within their small groups the students learn how to search for the truth in the text (i.e. what is Plato claiming here), and then debate and discuss its merits. Because Plato is not Scripture the students are not afraid of criticising his ideas; they learn to discuss the meaning of difficult ancient text, and they arrive at conclusions together as a community.
Once these skills are taught, applying them to Bible study in the hands of a capable leader should lead to much more robust and fruitful discussion that actually then leads to maturity.
Maturing into Christian adulthood will involve learning to rely on God, and the way we show our dependence is through prayer. However, it is often a token part of our meetings and regular ministry. The approach during the Academy was bold – there was a daily slot allocated to personal prayer time of at least 45 minutes. There was no big explanation or training given, but the teenagers were simply told to go and find a space to pray! Prayer was described as ‘offering yourself to God as you are and receiving God as he is’, the implication being that prayer is both a wonderfully profound thing but also inherently simple.
I’ll admit to being a little concerned at the thought of sitting by myself somewhere for 45 minutes to pray, but what I found was that by having such a large chunk of time deliberately set aside I had run out of things to distract me after 10 minutes and I was able to talk to God more freely than I am used to and when I chatted to the students about their experience they echoed those thoughts. This would not be a hard thing to implement in regular youth ministry, the challenge is being disciplined as leaders to set aside the time.
As young people develop their adult identities, they naturally explore new ideas, media and experiences. Wheatstone spend a lot of time helping the students to embark on this exploration and show them aspects of culture that they wouldn’t necessarily have discovered or chosen for themselves left to their own devices – we went to an art gallery, watched a movie, saw a Shakespeare play, hiked up a mountain to watch the sunset, listened to opera…
Instead of trying to shelter our teenagers from the world as they seek to explore, Wheatstone encourages leaders to walk alongside students as they discover new things, and to be involved in showing them parts of culture that they might otherwise not find for themselves.
This is not just for exploration’s sake – all the while the conversations are centred on enjoying experiences in a way that gives God the glory for the truth and beauty that has been unearthed. This helps to equip them to engage proactively in the world they inhabit and to recognise the good in creation when they see it as a gift from God. Most importantly it shows them that retaining a Christian faith into adulthood and engaging with new experiences are not mutually exclusive – in fact adulthood becomes more appealing when taken on as a mature disciple in Christ!
Wheatstone is pretty unique in its philosophy, and I’ve certainly been challenged to think through my approach to the task of encouraging Christian teenagers to mature into adulthood.
Clearly time in God’s word is absolutely critical, but there is a need to do so within the context of equipping our teenagers to mature in all areas of life or else their church experience will remain a childish pursuit which may not carry on into adulthood. We need to help them to mature in all areas of life so that their faith inhabits every part of their identity, and not just when they are at church on a Sunday.