"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Understanding Generations X and Y

Working With Adolescents in the Context of Pluralism

Felix Ortiz

  1. A PLURAL SOCIETY
  2. As parents of today’s adolescents, most of us were educated in societies where a plurality of worldviews or ways of seeing life did not exist. The Judeo-Christian culture was the axle around which the public and private values were structured. Although we saw the first, potent attacks of secularism, the Judeo-Christian culture worldview still dominated, providing the culture in which we grew up.

    For example, in countries with a Catholic culture, like Spain, France or Italy, we rarely came in contact with people that had a way of life or understanding that was radically different than ours. Although Catholics and Protestants differed in their understanding of faith, they were variations of the same worldview. Today it is much more evident that Catholics and Protestants have more in common than those who don't share the Christian worldview.

    The arrival of Postmodernism drastically changed the philosophical landscape. The slogans of our times are pluralism, variety, diversity, distinction and differences. In vast contrast to earlier days, no center of unity and structure gives coherence and meaning to the totality of life. Regarding this, Antonio Jimenez Ortiz, in an article titled How to Communicate the Faith to the Youth of today wrote:

    "The youth suffer from a serious internal fragmentation, without a spinal cord to hold them up. The internal destruction generates personal insecurity, and with frequency, a low self-esteem."

    Pluralism leaves us with the challenge of the election, of the need to choose the values we believe most adequate and correct in order to build our worldview around these beliefs. But since we find ourselves in a context of socio-culture pluralism we find multiple value systems presented before us in open competition for our loyalty and commitment.

    The Christian philosopher, Os Guiness affirms that pluralism makes all the options relative. He affirms that everything ends up converting into a question of options or personal elections. Effectively, when the multiple visions of the world are faced and demand our affection and attention, all remains relative, and the people who face such an avalanche of options begin to doubt and question the point of reference, their own personal worldview.

    In this context of variety and pluralism, postmodernism finds the ideal terrain to take forward its process of deconstruction. The deconstruction is the negation of the human’s capacity to interpret reality or to make declarations of truth from an objective point of view. If the objective reality does not exist, then all remains relative, any option or worldview is as valid as the next, any religion just as valid as the other.

    These heady concepts may appear to some as abstract, intellectual entertainment. In fact, it has reached the man of the street and forms a part of every day life and of our way of thinking and of handling reality. Today there is nothing wrong with being Christian, homosexual, Buddhist, Muslim or to practice divination. Nothing is right or wrong, it’s a question of personal election. Tolerance leads us to affirm that although we may never practice a determined option, we cannot deny that it could be a good and valid one for others.

  3. ADOLESCENTS AND PLURALISM
  4. This is the context, the cultural and social soup in which the adolescents of 2000 are growing up. Whether we like it or not, it is the same context in which our children are being formed. We must not fool ourselves! That which applies to the adolescents of this generation also impact our children. They are not only our children, but the children of their culture and time.

    Today's adolescents have eaten from the hands of pluralism and diversity from their first exposure to the world. Their schools are filled with kids from other races, cultures and religions. When they start high school and yet even more so in the university, it is not rare for them to find themselves with schoolmates that have values and worldviews that vary significantly from their own. It is commonplace to have friends who are openly homosexual, Buddhist, Atheist, or New Age. Although they may not practice the same lifestyles as their classmates, they tend to view these lifestyles as acceptable and valid, and thus to be tolerated and respected.

    The internet further extends adolescents' exposure to a diverse world to an extent vastly beyond former generations. In a matter of seconds they can click a link from a homework help site to a Buddhist site maintained on the other side of the globe. By visiting chat rooms they interact with people of radically different beliefs and lifestyles.

    The internet gives them direct and immediate access to fountains of information that five or six years ago were simply a dream to the majority of us. All of this allows them to live direct or vicarious experiences that before were reserved for the adults or the members of different cultures or social contexts.

    Beyond the Web, other media such as magazines, Television and Radio transmit a wide variety of vital options to its wide-eyed audience. The vast majority of these media present as normal and acceptable unmarried couples living together, repeated monogamy, homosexual couples, mothers that go to semen banks to have children without any need of marriage or to live as a couple. People who disagree with such lifestyles are portrayed at best as backward or unenlightened, at worst as hate-filled bigots.

    Thus our children are growing up in an environment which offers them grand variety of options, all presented as equally valid, which define reality for them. All of these options compete for their attention and loyalty. Among all of these options, Christianity, our faith, the faith of their parents, is simply one more option in competition with many other options. Besides, in this supermarket of worldviews that is central to postmodernism, Christianity may rank below the latest, newest, most attractive options.

    My generation grew up around only one truth. A truth that could be accepted or could be rejected. One that you can be loyal to or not be loyal to. In the end it was the TRUTH and that is how we recognized it. Quite to the contrary, our children are growing up around many truths, all them with in lowercase, all of them calling for their attention and loyalty and competing to be the best, the most gratifying and attractive.

  5. THE CHALLENGE OF TAKING OUR FAITH WITH OUR CHILDREN
  6. The adolescent world as I've outlined it presents a great challenge to Christian parents and to educators. How can we help our adolescents understand and accept Christianity as the only and defining TRUTH? How can we make the gospel believable among so many seemingly valid options?

    First we must recognize that we are not trying to make the gospel attractive in an aesthetic, fun or politically correct way. Our goal is to make the gospel believable and worthy of adoption as a total worldview. In other words, it is about helping them to see and experience that among all the options only a personal relationship with the Lord can satisfy their needs, their quest for reality, and their longing for purpose in life.

    In the previous paragraph I've highlighted two words: see and experience. My generation is predominantly intellectual and rational. We must not forget that we were educated with modernity, where the intellect and reason reigned supreme. Our children are fruit of the postmodernism and for them feeling and experience are the dominating elements. For us, the argumentation and reasoning are important in the hour of making a commitment. For them, experience and evidence are determinants.

    The author Peter Berger, speaking of pluralism in post modern society, indicates that each worldview, that is, each way of understanding and explaining life, needs and requires a social base to justify its continual existence and reality like worldview. He calls this social base "plausible structure."

    To amplify the previous paragraph, there are many ways to view life, each claiming to be the truth and asking for the loyalty of the people. For people to trust in one of these worldviews they need to see it put into practice and functioning in a human group. When a group of people put the values of that worldview into practice, outsiders can observe in order to evaluate that way of life to see if it is credible. If it is deemed credible, then they have found a plausible structure, a group of people that live what they preach.

    Dennis Hollinger, a Christian researcher of this theme, affirms that the more coherent a plausible structure, the more credibility the people and their worldview will have. When the Judeo-Christian worldview dominated our culture, many assumed the truth of the worldview even if they saw no plausible structure (Christians living out their faith). Without all the other competing world-views, communicating spiritual truth because we could make certain assumptions. But in a pluralistic society, Christianity may find itself a minority view in stiff competition with many worldviews. In this environment, the existence of a plausible Christian structure becomes much more necessary.

    The implications we face in the ministry with adolescents are clear. Our children not only need for us to transmit the truth but also need to see and experience that truth functioning in a plausible structure that is coherent and credible. We must accept the reality that for our children Christianity is no longer the TRUTH, but one more truth in competition, and, therefore, we must fight to show them that it is the best option around which they can structure their lives, both for now and eternity.

    Let's not forget that this generation moves primarily by experience, not rationalizing. It is not enough to explain the truth, share it or transmit it, they must see the truth in action, incarnated and living in a human group. Only then will the truth have credibility for them. This brings us to the next point.

  7. THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY AS A PLAUSIBLE STRUCTURE
  8. Our traditional approach to the transmission of the faith proceeds from modernity. We have always believed and assumed that an adolescent can be convinced by rational arguments pertaining to the Christian values. We suppose that if we use more creative methods, clearer and more suitable to them, that we could make them "understand" that the Christian worldview is the TRUTH.

    What is certain, based upon everything we've discussed so far, is that this approach no longer works – and the practice proves it – with our students. Our adolescents not only need arguments, but also need to see the gospel acting and incarnated in a real community that lives and practices what it proclaims. In this way it functions as a plausible structure in their eyes.

    Jesus affirmed: "I am the way and the TRUTH and the life." (John 14:6) In the same gospel He affirms, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…full of grace and TRUTH"(John 1:14)

    In the Bible the TRUTH is not merely a concept, theory or philosophy; the TRUTH is the incarnate Christ. The TRUTH does not exist alone, it exists as incarnated and practiced by the community of believers. The TRUTH of the gospel does not exist in an abstract kingdom and the metaphysics of ideas; it exists made flesh and blood in the lives of men and woman that live it and make it, therefore, making the gospel real, credible and plausible.

    In a world of pluralism, the Christian community must not only believe what is correct but must live what is correct in order to be a plausible structure to the youth. What counts to youth is not what we believe but what we live. Jesus affirmed that we would be identified as His disciples not by our declaration of faith (beliefs) but by our love (life style).

    When we live the Christian life in a coherent – not perfect – way, we make the gospel the TRUTH in the eyes of the youth, giving credibility and reality to the message. The argument that many so often gave to the youth, that they must look to the Lord and not to men, does not work. That is an easy escape from our responsibility to provide credibility for the Christian message. It puts the responsibility on the adolescent and it frees us from incarnating and living the truth.

    All the biblical teaching goes against that argument. The success and impact of the primitive church consisted in that the communities of believers give total credibility and plausibility to the message they preached. A non-believer could join their meetings and be convinced that the forgiveness, the humility, the generosity, the service, the love, the solidarity, the simplicity of life, the preoccupation of one for the others was a reality. They could see that Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor, slaves and free, men and women could all live together as brothers and sisters thanks to the love of Jesus Christ. Although Jesus (Acts 1:3;2:22) and Paul certainly gave rational arguments (Acts 17:1-3, 17) and the miracles themselves authenticated the gospel (Acts 6:8; 13:11,12; 14:3), the church itself seemed to be the primary apologetic of the first century.

    The Bible gives a clear accent on the importance to incarnate the truth to give the necessary credibility to the message in the eyes of the non-believers:

    "But I tell you: love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; that you may be sons of your father in heaven…" (Matthew 5:44-45a)

    "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

    (Matthew 5:14-16)

    "So that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe" (Philippians 2:15)

    Jesus was our plausible structure. He made love, forgiveness and acceptance from God believable for us. Thanks to Christ, we know what God is like and what His purpose for us is. With His death on the cross, He gave credibility to the good news of God's desire of reconciliation with humanity.

    We have tried to explain that in a context of pluralism the plausible structures are basic in order to give credibility to the different options that compete to be our worldview. Our children are growing up in this environment. For them, Christianity appears to be one option among many others.

    For them to believe it is not enough to transmit concepts and intellectual arguments. We must give credibility to the message of the gospel by making it incarnate, living it, and making it real and believable in the familiar life and of the adolescent community.

    Our children are not going to believe unless we provide them with coherent communities that honestly live and incarnate the reality of Christ.

    Our emphasis should not be that they understand. Instead, we should emphasize modeling the Christian life for them. When they see a model it will be much easier for them to understand.

    If we fail to make the family and the community a structure where the gospel is lived in a real and substantial way, demonstrating its truth and reality, then as Hollinger says, faith is impossible. On the contrary, it is my conviction that when we provide this, our children will embrace the faith of their parents. It may not happen immediately. Ministry with adolescents must be posed as a long-term challenge and a long-term investment. But eventually they will believe because they will see and experience that the gospel is the TRUTH.

    Christian thinker C. Suhard affirms:

    "To be a witness does not consist in propaganda, nor in confronting people, but it consists in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that our life does not have any possible explanation except that God exists."

    Said in another way, to be a witness is to be a plausible structure.

     

  9. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR MINISTRY

First, the traditional points of reference must be strengthened. The church and the families must collaborate extensively in order to help the adolescents embrace Christianity as the TRUTH around which their lives are structured. Both institutions must assume that it is no longer enough to believe the truth, to have declarations or confessions of orthodox faith; it is totally necessary in both institutions to incarnate the faith in an honest and coherent manner.

Parents must recognize that it is impossible for their children to accept the truth if they don’t live and practice it in their homes and if they don’t help their children see how the faith is applied and has meaning in their every day lives. Parents must understand that their lives are apologetics for good or for bad and that their life styles either give credibility to or cause disbelief in the message they confess to believe. While it is true that there is no such thing as perfect parents and that the children shouldn't expect perfection, parents must be coherent. Children have every right to expect their parents to live a lifestyle that reflects the values that they proclaim to believe.

The church cannot elude its apologetic responsibility. If the gospel cannot be touched and seen in the life of the community, we should not be shocked that the youth become skeptics, refusing to adopt a lifestyle that they categorize, with all reason, as hypocritical. We insist, as we have previously said, that it is not enough to tell the adolescents to look at the Lord and to not pay any attention to men. This is the wrong emphasis! Perhaps we need to start telling ourselves that we must look at the Lord because men look at us.

Some Christians will object that have always been hypocrites in church. True! And these hypocrites have led many astray. Their negative impact only serves to prove the point of the necessity of an authentic Christian community.

As of first importance, the church cannot neglect its responsibility to model the gospel to our children, and secondarily for the rest of humanity.

Putting this into practice signifies that the leadership of the church must make an effort to motivate, inform and instruct the congregation about how important its role as an apologetic in the eyes of adolescents. In the same manner, the leaders are responsible to cultivate a lifestyle that gives credibility to the gospel, and empower the community to live it through every means possible. Also the church must assist families by giving vision, motivation, training, support and counseling. Let's not forget that no one is born knowing how to transmit the faith to the next generation.

Second, churches must develop strong ministries for adolescents. I believe that these ministries can have a strong impact and need to have the following characteristics:

  1. To be composed of leaders that feel an authentic passion and love for adolescents. How will students be able to understand that God loves them and has an interest in their lives if not through the love, acceptance and genuine interest that their leaders express to them? Love, forgiveness and accepting the Lord are not abstract concepts. They are vital experiences that are perceived through watching believers who live it out.
  2. Being formed by leaders that are willing to give a long-term commitment to these adolescents. Today, more then ever, adolescents need adults that will be a positive influence over the long haul. Often neither the professors in the institutes, the teachers in Sunday school nor the busy can provide the dedicated time adolescents need. The absence of adults in their lives leaves them in need of valid models that they can follow and imitate. This is the role of the youth leaders. This cannot happen simply through a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly activities. That is why it is so important to have leaders that are willing to invest their time in the lives of adolescents throughout the entire adolescence period. The leaders must be willing to commit a minimum of five years to their job or ministry.
  3. Accompany the adolescent spiritually (Mentoring relationship). The leader must take responsibility for accompanying the adolescent on the voyage from disbelief to faith. This is why long-term commitments are necessary. The voyage may be a long one. Throughout the voyage someone must accompany them, providing a constant, spiritual point of reference, keeping the topic of faith open, reminding them of their need to make a commitment to God, remaining by their side to show and incarnate the Lord's love and unconditional acceptance. This is impossible if there isn’t a commitment of loyalty from the leader towards the adolescent, a commitment that must be long-term.
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  5. Act as a plausible structure. The leaders that work with adolescents must represent an authentic plausible structure for the Christian worldview. Their life style and spiritual coherence must make the message of the gospel believable. The adolescents must be able to see that the good news functions and is real in the lives of the people that work with them. This way, through the interaction with Christians that live what they preach they can see Christianity as an attractive option. This does not exclude the parents and the rest of the community. The leaders should only compliment the work of both institutions. Unfortunately, experience teaches us that many times not only do they need to cover the emptiness that each of these have left but they need to fight against the bad influences.
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  7. Opportunities for the leaders and adolescent to interact. Points 1-4 are made possible by the leader and adolescent spending time together. It is then when the leader can act as a genuine and efficient plausible structure. It is then when the adolescent can see Jesus incarnated in the life of those that they are surrounded by.
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  9. Training for the leaders. Good intentions on the part of churches and youth leaders are not enough. We must have trainers who can unite the training, vision and comprehension of what it means to work with adolescents.

 

Third, parents must come together to give each other mutual support, pray for each other, share their needs and intercede in a continual way for their adolescent children. Our Lord put intercession at our disposal to help our children spiritually and to strengthen us during this time of battle. People with vision must take an initiative to organize prayer meetings, support groups for parents, support groups for leaders of adolescents and all types of initiatives that could have a spiritual influence on their children. Parents can't afford to be passive spectators.

Fourth, we must understand youth ministry as a long-term investment. In the past things may have been different. Parents and all adult leaders must see their work as a long-term effort. In many cases we may not see fruit until the adolescents reach 18 or 20 years of age. It is necessary, therefore, to arm yourself with patience – which is a gift of the Holy Spirit – trust in the Lord, intercede, be strengthened in grace, find support from other parents and to know that our God is much more interested in our children than we are.

Fifth, we must disciple a committed core of youth and inspire them as to their vital role in providing a plausible structure for their peers. Ten thousand adolescents were surveyed by Group Magazine in the United States to find what was most important to them in a church. By far, the most important elements were the friendliness of the youth group and acceptance by the youth. No matter how much we as adults love students and care for them, if your students don't accept them, they won't return. If they come to your church and find adults who care but students who don't care, they will not find a plausible structure and Christianity will not ring true to them. Even when youth really care, they often lack the relational skills to effectively demonstrate love for one another and for visitors. Training in this practical area is crucial.

Sixth, there is a need of collaboration among the churches. Adolescents need a viable context for spiritual growth and people that are trained to work with them. Not every local church, due to the size, is in condition to provide either. The common work between the different local communities are necessary in order to unite human resources and materials to better minister to adolescents. Small churches, with little resource and few adolescents cannot permit themselves the luxury of fighting alone. Medium size churches and large ones cannot withhold their resources and gifts from the smaller churches. This attitude will not only greatly benefit ministry to adolescents, but also greatly honor the Lord.

Recommended Books:

1. Barna Research about Third Millennium Kids
2. Josh McDowell book on The Disconnected generation
3. A book that helped me a lot to understand the new thinking paradigm was Christian Apologetics in the postmodern world, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and published by InterVarsity Press.

About the Author:

Felix Ortiz holds a Bachelor of History degree and Masters in Religious Education. He's a Baptist Pastor and is National Director of the Youth Ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ in Spain.

Permissions:

Copyright 1991 by Felix Ortiz. Used by permission.