In an age when teenagers are confronting “adult” problems such as broken families, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and sexuality, Christian youth workers say traditional ministry tools and training are losing their effectiveness.

“Kids are not the same today as they were 20 years ago,” says Dave Lambert, editor of youth books for Zondervan Publishing House. “The world is changing very rapidly, so much so that—as Alvin Toffler says—change has changed. Although the biblical principles for youth work haven’t changed, the techniques of youth work from even 10 or 15 years ago are not very useful today.”

The recent National Youth Workers Convention in Los Angeles offered its 1,150 participants seminars on standard topics such as retreats, group discussion, drama, and music. But it also offered sessions on homosexuality, broken homes, and suicide—subjects that, even a few years ago, were considered unusual.

Guy Doud, the 1986 National Teacher of the Year and a keynote speaker, says many young people are engaging in activities previously reserved for adults. “Kids are having ‘adult’ experiences in the areas of sex, drugs, and alcohol much earlier than in the past,” he says. “This gives the impression that they are more self-assured and independent. But in my experience, young people today are more immature than young people of 30 to 40 years ago.”

The trend toward “early adulthood” has not been lost on Young Life, a youth ministry that recently expanded to include junior high school students. “The ‘age of accountability’ is going down,” says its president Doug Burleigh. “The kinds of decisions that were being made by college kids 20 years ago are being made by junior high kids today.”

Challenges And Resources

“Temptation felt the same in the 1950s as it feels today,” says Marlene Lefever, manager of curriculum services for the David C. Cook publishing company. “But the questions are more serious [today]. In the fifties, kids asked each other if they were virgins. Today, they wonder if their friends are gay.”

Lambert says Zondervan’s youth book advisory committee has identified three trouble areas for kids. “First is sex, along with the whole question of AIDS,” he says. Society accepts and promotes an increased sexuality, he notes, with movies frequently assuming that if young people “fall in love or even like each other that the next step is going to bed together.”

A second problem area involves “family relationships and the disintegration of the family,” Lambert says. “A survey … done a few years ago … showed that losing their parents was a major fear for half of all teenagers.… You have more divorces, more single-parent and blended families, and in some cases you have parents living with people they’re not married to. This confuses kids.

“Third,” he says, “kids have no—or little—hope for the future. They live in the present because the future is frightening to them. They’re frightened by the economy, international tensions, and everything else, and they feel inadequate, as if they’re unable to deal with the world. For many kids, life is very existential, with no meaning except what they create for themselves.”

Christian thinkers and publishers are rushing to fill the void in materials designed to help youth workers deal with kids’ problems. But often the marketplace will not tolerate books on controversial topics. “Kids need to know about AIDS,” says Lefever, “but we don’t yet see a market among Christian workers for materials on AIDS, AIDS is perceived as someone else’s problem right now.”

Still, publishers are working to produce books to meet current needs, with Zondervan publishing titles on sexuality, family relationships, and teenagers in crisis. David C. Cook offers a curriculum to help parents understand adolescence, and other materials that help kids through problems with self-image.

Wanted: Role Models

New challenges bring additional pressures, and many youth workers are responding by trying to build a deeper sense of community in their groups. According to Doud, it is not materials and books that help young people, but adults who are committed to Christ and to youth. “More than anything, young people need real people to look up to and emulate,” he says. “… Kids need solid role models, and it’s important not to try to be something we’re not.”

In addition, he says, youth workers need to help kids overcome their selfishness. “We have to lose ourselves in the service of others, and kids desperately need to be shown this by Christian leaders.

“Our student council hosted a prom for the senior citizens in our community,” Doud said. “At first the kids thought it was a crazy idea. But then one of our officers, a popular athletic-type guy, told me, ‘This is the most fun I’ve had in school. It feels so good to do something for someone else.’ Kids need to see that in their Christian leaders, because they won’t learn about serving others from our society.”

By Steve Rabey, in Los Angeles

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