Tradition and Teenagers

Posted by on Oct 18, 2014 in Voices

Rev. Fr. Andrew Unger

Rev. Fr. Andrew Unger, seek Chair of Diocesan Youth Ministry. Youth Pastor, All Souls, Wheaton, IL

There are a lot of words that could be used to describe our diocese. Some call it “historic,” others “traditional”. The Diocese of Quincy, to many, represents a bastion for historic Anglo-catholicism; it’s a group of churches whose worship and polity resists the sweeping changes of culture and holds on to those things which have been handed down to us from our predecessors in faith. These are all admirable qualities.

What our heritage does not offer is a historic way to disciple modern adolescents: the members of our congregations that have grown out of childhood, but still haven’t fully matured into adulthood. Part of the problem is that adolescence as a life stage changed and expanded drastically in the second half of the 20th century. And so, there aren’t a lot of historic traditions that we can turn to when it comes to discipling the modern teenager. And many of the models that have emerged in the church universal haven’t exactly been successful. This is why youth pastors throughout any number of denominational structures have been looking for ways to reimagine engagement with a generation that seems to look less and less like it fits in traditional church structures.

So what is a diocese like Quincy supposed to do? You might think that we are faced with two options. On one hand, we could try to appeal to our tradition and insist that youth go through Confirmation classes as we’ve always had them, and then hope that they step into adulthood and out of adolescence as soon as possible. insisting that teenagers just learn to love the liturgy.

On the other hand, you might think  the only way to appeal to adolescents is to make ourselves as contemporary as possible, through messy games, goofy youth pastors and giant multimedia extravaganzas. Maybe if we just get teenagers together to have a fun time, they’ll learn to love Jesus! This might be summarized as adapting everything we do to them.

Thankfully, I believe there is another way. A way that doesn’t require us to abandon what makes Quincy unique, and yet can still look forward into engaging the next generation as they learn to love and follow Christ in the 21st century.

As it turns out, some of the best research about youth ministry and the faith of teenagers shows that chasing after trends isn’t effective in helping students learn and grow in their faith. It just so happens that one of the greatest factors in discipling teenagers is having adults around them that model a life of faith. It isn’t flashy games, it isn’t big events, and it isn’t a cool factor. It is adults who love them and care for them and show them what it looks like to love Jesus.

That means you, yes you, may be called to find a teenager in your congregation and take her out for coffee. It may mean asking questions and listening to all the details of his homecoming weekend. It means being bold enough to step into their lives, and humble enough to listen and care for them – wherever they are. We don’t have to change the liturgy, but after the dismissal we have to step out of our comfort zones so that adolescents see how much they are loved, by us and by God. We can not simply insist that the liturgy will do the work for us. It won’t.

Discipling a new generation of Christians requires that we learn to communicate the gospel to them in their own context. Our traditional worship may not immediately attract teenagers to investigate a life of faith. But what will bring some in, and nurture those who are already in our communities, is faithful people coming alongside, mentoring, and pouring their lives into these young Christians. The average age of the parishioner in the Diocese of Quincy may be “old”, but I believe that as we look to engage and pour our lives into our youth, we will find that they grow to love Jesus, and maybe even learn to love the liturgy as well.

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