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Why It's Important to Understand Teenagers

starting later this month, i’ll be speaking in 5 locations for barefoot ministries’ $5 training. it’s a very cool half day of training, for (can you guess?), five dollars. the day is targeted at volunteer youth workers, and is ideal for teams to attend together. check out the $5 training site for more info and locations.

the first seminar that day is called ‘understanding today’s teenagers’. i also wrote a short ebook for barefoot on this subject. here’s the opening few paragraphs from that:

A visiting alien (the kind from another planet, that is, not just a foreigner) could watch a bunch of TV shows and movies with teenagers in them, and form a fairly robust understanding of the values, thought processes, and inner life of a modern-day teenager.

But the alien would be wrong.

Sure, they’d get a few things right. But those two-dimensional sources would be mostly misleading. Those flat personifications of teenagers would not provide understanding for these real-life scenarios:

Tyler has loving parents and a great church youth group. He’s smart, and goes to a great school. In rare instances, Tyler can be hilarious and social. But most of the time, Tyler keeps to himself, brooding and sullen. He seems to be naturally attracted to dark, violent music. He regularly sits in his room, staring at the wall, doing nothing. Why?

Jenna is a creative and social 16 year-old who, despite what people might assume about her, has never been a big partier, and is fairly inexperienced with alcohol. She is also on her church’s youth ministry worship team, deeply connected with her family, and excited about the responsible young adult she is becoming. So why does Jenna break into an unopened bottle of vodka her parents have in the pantry? Why does Jenna, realizing she’s going to get caught, but wanting to have a bit more, bring vodka to school in a travel mug? And why is she surprised when she gets caught and suspended from school?

Crystal does not fit the easy and obvious stereotypes of a high school dropout. And she hasn’t dropped out yet, but she’s secretly working toward it. Crystal has attended an expensive private school for 11 grades, and both of her parents are extremely involved in the school. They have a comfortable home, and give Crystal lots of (but not too much) freedom. She has done well enough in school, and doesn’t seem overly stressed. So why is Crystal secretly taking G.E.D. tests, one at a time, so she can drop out of school one semester before graduation? Why is she planning on moving to a farm in another state?

Jason’s home is complicated. He has an older brother with learning disabilities who takes most of the family’s attention. His parents are present, and trying, but they’re really odd and quirky. And they struggle financially, living in a very rough neighborhood where Jason is a minority. But Jason is about the sharpest, most alive teenager you would ever meet. He’s generous and humble, loyal and passionate. Where did that come from? Who should get the credit?

Real, three-dimensional teenagers are complicated.

I suppose it’s fair to say that all humans are. But we adults are not teenagers, and our assumptions about what drives thought and behavior are colored by our adult perspectives and experiences. Add to that the reality that understanding teenagers is a constantly morphing and shape-shifting body of information. Today’s teenagers are not the same as teenagers in 1987 (and certainly not the same as teenagers in 1967). Sure, some things haven’t changed. But I think it’s fair to say that more has changed than has stayed the same.

So our own experiences of being a teenager, if we can remember them at all, are only nominally helpful.

If we want to be effective in coming alongside teenagers, helping them develop a real and active, sustainable faith, the ultimate starting point is: nurturing your own connection with Jesus.

But, that’s not what this ebook is about.

If we want to be effective in coming alongside teenagers, helping them develop a real and active, sustainable faith, the second most important piece of the picture is: presence. A willingness to be there.

But that’s not what this ebook is about either.

So let’s go with the third most important thing, which is what this book is about. That thing, the third most important aspect of effective engagement with teenagers, is: understanding them.

Sure, there are great examples of fairly clueless youth workers of all ages who have been used by God in the lives of teenagers despite their lack of understanding. But a deep and growing understanding of teenagers and their world will have an impact (a positive one!) on every aspect of what you do in youth ministry: from conversations to small group leadership, from teaching topics to teaching approaches, from event planning to parent interactions, from expectations to the values of your ministry.

That’s what I’m hoping to provide you in this short book. It won’t be comprehensive, of course. I’ve studied all this stuff continually, for years, and I’m still learning all the time. I still have blind spots in my understanding. Plus, teenagers and youth culture continue to shift and change.

But I hope to give you a leg up, a cursory overview of the lives and world of the real-life teenagers God has called you to. If you add this knowledge to the first two priorities (your own growing connection with Jesus and your willingness to be present to teenagers), you’ll be a better youth worker than most.

btw, the first $5 training event is this coming saturday (january 21), in orange county. check out the site for more info.