Faith Today caught up with Penner as he waited for a flight to China where he was going to train youth workers in the unofficial Church. He spoke to us about what churches need to do today to build relationships with the youth in our midst, and those we would invite in.
The FT Interview With Marv Penner
Faith Today: You have been involved with youth ministry a long time in Canada. How have things changed?
Marv Penner: First, we need to recognize that adolescents have changed in some ways, although in some other ways they have remained very much the same. The world of adolescence has changed pretty dramatically. We are seeing it born out in all sorts of empirical ways. For example, in the last seven to ten years the number of kids who are struggling with major anxiety has spiked, and depression is at an all-time high for adolescents. Even for those who are a little bit skeptical about these mental health diagnoses, the suicide rate after 20 years of being stable has been on a dramatic uptick to the point where the Centers for Disease Control in the States reports it has doubled with adolescent suicides, and the biggest increase is with adolescent girls.
FT: The issues adolescents are dealing with seem to be more complex.
MP: When I started 45 years ago, issues like self-harm were just unheard of. They just weren’t part of our conversation. In the last 20 years, it is becoming epidemic – literally so. There was nothing written on it until 15 years ago probably, and of course in the faith-based area there was literally nothing written. I think I wrote the first book on self-harm from a Christian perspective [Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut (Zondervan, 2008)]. The changes there are dramatic.
The second big area of change has been in the family. Over the course of the years I’ve been doing this, there have been dramatic changes in family, not only in terms of the way families are constituted, but also how families do life together, and the way that expresses itself is in teenagers who are so swamped, so busy and so overwhelmed by their schedules that they have relatively little time left for faith development. And a lot of parents have put faith formation behind soccer practice and dance and baseball and whatever else. That has become a big issue. Related to that, the family’s attitude toward church has dramatically changed over the years I have done this. Families who come to church two or three times every couple of months consider themselves to be regular attenders. Those things have certainly changed.
FT: Are there any constants?
MP: Kids have always asked for a nonparental adult to be involved in their lives at some level. We know from the research that when an adolescent has the benefit of a nonparental adult committed to walking through that season of life with them, they operate better in every measurable area of their lives. They are looking for nonparental adults who are available, authentic and willing to accept them. Those three As, they have been there from the beginning and they still remain today.
FT: That nonparental adult, right away I’m thinking of a youth worker in a church. Is that who you are referring to?
MP: Absolutely. Or coaches, or teachers or piano teachers. I know people who are in full-time vocational youth ministry who are disguised as McDonald’s managers. They are very invested in students and that’s why they are doing what they are doing. I know a guy who is doing a Burger King manager position and he says that he has 30 teenagers in his life at any given moment, and he’s their pastor and that’s why he does that. Youth ministry takes on all kinds of forms. It’s not just in the church basement on a Friday night.
FT: Is there still a place and a need for the traditional church youth group?
MP: Certainly, that is a connecting point for some students. But it’s been pretty amazing to see how entrepreneurial or responsive youth ministry has been to the fact that it’s hard to get kids to come to church.
We’ve had to look at the students who are part of a faith family and empower them, instead of making the emphasis to come to church. We’ve had to empower them to be the Church. That has been a wonderful transition we have observed.
It used to be in the ’70s or ’80s the goal was to get as many kids into the youth room as possible. Now instead of getting kids to come to attractional programs, we need to mobilize a generation to reach their peers. It requires a different kind of youth worker now. It requires a missional commitment to empower kids to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their generation.
It’s that shift from talking about kids being the Church of tomorrow, and realizing they are the Church of today. That’s been a wonderful transition. It takes a different approach. You’re not just trying to figure out ten more uses for duct tape. You are helping kids be spiritually formed so they can accurately represent the gospel in their world. That’s a pretty different mindset from thinking of how we can keep them busy on a Friday night.
FT: How about the role of intergenerational relationships? Research like the Hemorrhaging Faith report shows that is so important.
MP: It’s crucially important. There’s a number of ways we’ve seen this working out over the last little while. Part of it has been that for all the bad news about family, there is a generation of parents who are becoming very intentional about investing spiritually in their adolescent sons and daughters. We are seeing that this is happening within families. But there is a bit of a dilemma and that is that developmentally adolescents are on an interesting journey toward individuation. So somewhere around the age of 11–14, they will feel a developmental obligation to disengage from their family of origin. It is part of the journey toward adulthood and it’s been well documented. They have to distance themselves so they can become part of their family of peers. Here’s where we have an opportunity as faith communities that I think we haven’t been conscious of and haven’t leveraged as well as we could. In the typical secular perspective, kids disengage from the family of origin and become engaged with what some sociologists have called the second family.
We need to be much more conscious of helping kids transition from their family of origin to the family of faith. If we can see our churches as these beautiful, intergenerational families where kids can find a safe space to individuate and answer that question, "Who am I?"
Kids become weary of being Bob and Susan’s son. They become weary of being Josh’s little sister. So they have to say, "Who am I?" If that question is answered only by the peers around them, it will result in confusion and a lot of the anxiety and other affective disorders hitting kids these days. But if they can answer the "Who am I?" question in the context of an intergenerational family of faith, that gives them a solid foundation, assuming our family of faith will be welcoming and the kind of place that will embrace them.
This motivated a bunch of us to write a book a few years ago called Adoptive Youth Ministry around this concept [Baker Academic, 2016]. What would it mean for a faith community to actually assume a posture of being an adoptive home for every adolescent, both those from within and those from without? That concept is now becoming part of the language of youth ministry.
FT: So becoming an adoptive congregation doesn’t necessarily mean changing the type of music you play or your service? It’s more about relationship?
MP: Those things are probably peripheral to some students. That whole concept has to be viewed through the lens of relationship. It has to do largely with a sense of belonging. When church feels like home in the best sense of the word, then you have Kingdom value. When it feels like a place we drop into occasionally, or for a program, that feels like we are providing a service. It is about being fully known, and still accepted and loved. That is the challenge for faith communities. Not only are we willing to adapt our mode of worship or our calendar, or maybe even make an adjustment in our facility, it actually requires us to become relationally engaged with a generation of people.
It’s actually easier to paint a youth room in funky colours than it is to actually engage relationally with a teenager you don’t know. A lot of churches are patting themselves on the back for responding with the right architecture or order in their service, but the highest cost will be relational. And with that higher cost comes much higher reward in terms of Kingdom outcomes.
FT: Are you feeling optimistic about youth and the Church these days?
MP: I am so excited about what is happening across the country right now. It is phenomenal. There is a new apprentice-based training program we’ve launched this year. The Coalition for Youth Ministry Excellence [www.CoalitionForMinistry.com] is moving youth ministry training into an experiential learning model. We are actually putting people front line in churches or organizations into a ministry context with careful spiritual direction, coaching and mentoring in terms of comprehensive development of youth ministry. We’re seeing churches jump on board and students are lining up. It is a whole new way of training people for youth ministry in the 21st century.
FT: You are also involved in the soon-to-be released Young Adult Transition Research partnership looking at how the lives of Christian young adults change as high school ends and they transition into their next phase of life [www.TheEFC.ca/YATR]. How will that research help?
MP: I think it will once again give us a wake-up call. It’s not unlike how a lot of parents see getting their kids through high school. Some parents think, "I did my 18 years and now they are on their own." Churches might adopt that same posture. "I got them through high school and now I’ve lost track of them." We will discover that those first few years out of high school are really crucial, mostly because of elongated adolescence. It used to be that when you were out of high school, you were an adult. But 19-year-olds now are more middle adolescent developmentally. There are all kinds of implications for the Church.
FT: Thank you, Marv.