WARREN WIERSBEWarren Wiersbe is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Covington, Kentucky. He served four years with Youth for Christ International, part of that time as Editor of YFC Magazine. He has written often on teen-age problems. His most recent book is A Guidebook for Teens, published by Moody Press.
If Christ’s pastoral commission to Peter were rephrased in terms of today’s population explosion, it would exhort the pastor to register the new babies, provide for the children, keep the teen-agers from turning into juvenile delinquents, counsel the newlyweds, encourage the middle-aged, and do something constructive for the senior citizens. Besides all this, he would have the care of the church!
Most of these assignments the average pastor accepts with faith and courage, except the one relating to the youth. He feels that the babies are no problem; he gets along well with children; the newlyweds and middle-aged appreciate his services and respect his office; the senior saints are happy for any attention. But many pastors shake their heads and look upon teen-agers as problems, not as people.
The Root Of The Problem
The first factor which contributes to the average pastor’s dilemma with his youth is his own general attitude toward teen-agers. If he is honest, he may have to confess that he is resentful of his church’s youth because they do not seem to respect him, because they pose problems he cannot easily solve. In other words, while children and adults give the pastor an opportunity to succeed, a group of teen-agers often poses a threat to his ministerial miracle-working, simply because he does not know what to do with them. More than one adolescent psychologist has suggested that the root of adult-teen difficulty is the adult’s resentment of his own “lost youth” and of the teen-ager’s obvious vitality and carefree attitude. We “hate ourselves” for growing old, but we “take it out” on the young people instead.
The first step toward a mature pastoral ministry with our young people, then, would be a genuine acceptance of them—faults and all—in the spirit of Christian love. Teen-agers detect insincerity; nothing less than true Christian love will win their allegiance.
The growing pressure brought against the pastor—“do something about the teen-age problem”—is another factor. A minister cannot read a newspaper or magazine without being told that the churches and the homes are to blame for the delinquency situation. Occasionally some honest orator will admit that the problem is not quite that simple, but popular journalism is usually victorious. The pastor feels a stab in his conscience every time he reads a teen-age crime report.
A third factor is the increased interdenominational youth activity across the nation. While most of these ministries try to cooperate with the local church, competition seems to result inevitably as the young people compare the church’s program with the latest city-wide or nation-wide conference.
Can the pastor who feels these pressures daily escape frustration? Yes—if he will only realize that a satisfying ministry with his church’s youth can be his. The pastor need not become a “youth expert” (whatever that is) or spend his evenings building a file of jokes. Just by being himself and by following a few basic principles, he can pastor these teen-agers into a fuller development of their Christian faith.
The muddied waters are beginning to clear when the pastor can see that the teen-agers who give him the most trouble do not even exist! They are imaginary:
The Historical Teen. This youth shows up whenever you find yourself saying, “Now, back when I was a young person.…” The fact of the matter is, times have changed since you were a teen-ager, although you may not like to admit it. Few young men drove cars when you were in high school, but an automobile is a status symbol today, and it means more to a teen-ager than Father can ever know. When we find ourselves comparing today’s adolescents with those of our own generation, we are bound to run into problems. Keep “The Historical Teen” in the pages of your diary; he’s a trouble-maker in the church.
The Statistical Teen. Several wealthy firms make their money by interviewing young people and selling their reports to the public. They will tell you what kind of music teens enjoy, what they want for Christmas, how many books they read a year. But of the three kinds of lies—white lies, black lies, and statistics—“statistics” is the first. “Mr. Average Teen-Ager” does not exist. The figures you study in the latest survey will seldom apply to the youth in your church. You cannot work with a statistic, so devote yourself to understanding and helping the teen-agers you actually know.
The Commercial Teen. This is the mental image you have of “A Modern Teen-ager.” It is made up of many things: newspaper reports, movie ads, TV personalities, your own youthful years, and so forth. The American public pictures the American teen as a handsome youth with a crew cut, a hot rod, a warm smile, and a harem of girlfriends. He too does not exist.
The Ideal Teen. A man must have ideals or he will drift into failure, but an ideal must be balanced by reality. Every pastor’s “Ideal Teen-Ager” would be different, but in each case the pastor must admit the image is impractical. Every teen-ager is an individual, and each one’s progress must be measured on his own scale of abilities and opportunities.
The pastor who wants to help young people must accept and work with the teen-agers he has, seeking to understand them better, and must not be detoured into fretting over young people who do not exist in life.
Taking Teens Seriously
A good pastor must understand that every teen-ager faces three important hurdles on the road to his maturity—self-understanding (What am I like?), self-development (What can I do?), and self-esteem (What am I worth?). The young person will use his “teen crowd” for the moral and emotional support he needs in reaching these goals. As a result, the understanding pastor will not criticize his young people for their “group complex” and their desire to enjoy the crowd. (If it is the wrong kind of crowd, the pastor will want to step in and change things, not denounce them.) The wise pastor will perceive “going steady” as another device to gain self-understanding, self-development, and self-esteem.
Teen-agers need a pastor who reads his Bible with them in mind. After all, Joseph was a teen-ager when he was sold into Egypt, David was a teen-ager when he killed Goliath, Daniel was in his early teens when he was taken to Babylon. And what of Samuel, Josiah, Jeremiah, Timothy, and even Mary, the mother of our Lord, who was certainly in her teens when she wed Joseph! This does not mean that every sermon should be only for youth, but it does mean that the youth should be considered in every sermon.
The pastor who takes teen-age problems as seriously as the teen-agers do is going to win them. He will never say, “Well, this is a typical teen-age problem, and you’ll grow out of it.” The problems of every age group are usually “typical,” but this does not relieve the pain nor solve the problem! The sympathetic pastor will listen with his heart, help the teen-ager face himself honestly, and carefully lead him into an understanding of the basic principles governing the Christian life.
Finally, the pastor will avoid treating the young person as a means to an end. “We missed you in church last Sunday. If you had been here, we would have had fifty teen-agers!” Is this why you wanted him in church, so he could help the annual report? No teen-ager (and no adult, for that matter) wants to be treated like a number in an IBM machine; he wants to be accepted as a person, the way God accepts him.
The Challenge To The Church
Teen-agers drop out of church when their faith ceases to be relevant to daily living and when Bible study becomes a burden rather than an exciting adventure. When the pulpit criticizes them for “being worldly” but fails to offer them a satisfying social life, young people drift away from the house of God. When they see glaring inconsistencies in the lives of the adults (particularly their parents), they lose confidence in the Christian faith and go searching for a substitute. When the traditional “canned youth programs” no longer challenge them, no longer face their problems nor meet their needs, they turn elsewhere for help.
Sympathetic sponsors and teachers, well-prepared programs, increased opportunities for service in the church, at least two “dress-up” events each year, a youth library, emphasizing Christian growth and careers, and an open door to the pastor’s study—these ingredients will help attract and hold young people. A pastor who makes the Bible live and who shows he loves young people by including them in his messages will make the recipe complete.
There are several ways in which a pastor can get to understand his church’s youth. He can spend time with them in their informal get-togethers. It is not a matter of finding time, but making time. Remind yourself that your church is always one generation short of extinction, and you will have no problem making time for the intermediate picnic or the graduation reception. Read a good youth magazine each month. It would help to glance at the local high school paper, too. You can read one in ten minutes and come up with a dozen topics of conversation for the next time you meet one of your youthful members.
Above all, pray personally for your young people. Bearing them up at the throne of grace will tie them to your heart, and your awakened interest will reveal itself in your conversation and your sermons. Pray for their career choices, and your sermons will become more practical. Pray about their future mates and homes, and your counseling will take on added meaning. The joyful result will be a pastor who looks at his young people and sees, not heart-breaking problems, but heaven-sent potentials for the glory of God.
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