Be Careful About Youth Generalizations

Youth ministry

My son calls them, "Awkward conversations with adults."

In an attempt for adults to make conversation with a teen boy the first question they often ask is, "What's your favorite video game?" It becomes uncomfortable for him because he finds himself saying, "Umm, I don't really like video games." If he was able, he would be outside all the time playing a competitive sport, preferably football.

Sure he plays video games at a friend's house, but the closest he comes to video games are "app-based" games. He absolutely hates these conversations.

It happens to all of my kids. My 15-year-old is smart, a cheerleader, passionate about photography, loves reading (especially anything dystopian), and Jesus. She will tell me, "Adults keep trying to put me into boxes; can't I just be in all of them?" It's not just one; it's ALL of my kids that feel this way. My youngest admitted (with guilt) the other day that sometimes youth group bores her because she doesn't want to sit and listen to someone talk. My oldest thought she could never fit into the group at church with other college-aged students.

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Recently, I have read several articles making broad-brush strokes about the younger generation. The irony is that my four kids don't fit most of the statements that are being made. Come to think of it, many of the students I work with don't either. I am finding that my own children, as well as others, are getting turned off by the statements that infer what their generation is and is not—even when these statements are "positive." It even makes them feel like they don't really fit into church because they are different.

My own kids have tried youth groups, they now avoid because they are told, "All middle school students are ... " And guess what? They don't feel that way about themselves. It actually makes them feel like it is just one more place they are on the outside looking in.

We talk so much about "inclusive community," while we compartmentalize students. I wonder if this is one more reason why students leave the church? We try so hard to help them belong, while pushing them away. There are similarities in a mindset, but we must remember everyone is NOT the same.

Recently my daughter was asked to write a persuasive essay for school. Her friends wrote about political ideas or why you should like a certain television show. I asked her the question, "What are you passionate about?" She came up with three things: Photography, Reading, and Helping Inner City Families.

She decided she would write about "Why the Church Should Support Inner City Families." Her teacher didn't like it. It takes work for them to really figure out what they are "passionate" about. Not every student knows, or some know and don't think their passion is worthy.

Inadvertently some of the systems in place to support our students sometimes make them feel like their passions are "dumb." Now my daughter has a choice. Stand up for her cause, or succumb to the feeling that her passions should be different.

Her first response was, "I should have just written about photography." We often state this is a generation of "innovators" who want to figure out their own way. Yet, the challenge comes when they are not really at a place in life yet where they understand what that means.

I just think we need to be very careful as we embark on this new decade of youth ministry. My generation loved the movie, "The Breakfast Club," because as a teen we knew exactly which "group" fit us. Those days of "all these types of kids are like this," are over.

Instead, students pride themselves on being a little bit this and some of that. It's becoming downright dangerous to make assumptions about students just because they are urban, suburban, rural, multi-ethnic, rich, poor, middle-class, athletic, nerdy, artistic, fat, skinny, and everything in between.

For the only common thread is they feel isolated, and like there is "no one else like them." What they don't see is we all feel awkward, misplaced and insecure from time to time. We are actually alienating them when we decide who they are based on a new statistical analysis.

I guess in the end I am wondering if we will do the work it will take to really get to know our students?

Instead of trying to program to what they "should" be, can we reassess on a constant basis?

What about you? If you are honest, do you lump your students together?

Leneita Fix is the director of ministry development for Aslan Youth Ministries, a family-focused urban ministry serving Monmouth County in New Jersey and Haiti. She has been working in some form of youth and family ministry for almost 22 years.

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