Where the Potential of Teens May Be Found—Our Churches

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Originally published March 15, 2010.

We are believers in teens.  We believe that through their relationship with God they can change their world.  We believe this can happen like in stories of old such as David against Goliath, the young Joshua, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and Mark, the teen who followed Jesus.  We share recent stories such as the testimonies of Bethany Hamilton, Zach Hunter, Austin Gutwein, Mackenzie Bearup and others.  But not everyone believes in the potential of teens. 

A blogger, Jeffrey Sconce, went on a tear about the two growing views society has of teens.  He said that for the ones who are an annoyance and viewed bad for society, there is the “mosquito” which blasts the “bad” ones with ultrasonic frequencies that irritate teens but are imperceptible to anyone over age 25.  Authorities deploy the mosquito in an attempt to prevent teenagers from congregating, loitering, and just generally existing in places where their presence is not welcome–near storefronts, at the food court, in alleyways, etc.  For the “good” ones, society has been cocooning teens with consumer electronics until they’re ready to be fully functional butterflies on the outside.  Those consumer electronics include the internet, mobile computing, and social networking.  And do we ever cocoon them with electronics!  Did you see their Christmas wish lists?  Have you seen their bedrooms?  Like prescription drugs, electronics have positive usage in our lives.  But there is also a dark and negative side that affects teens more than anyone else.


To quote Sconce: “When western capitalism invented the teenager as a consumer target in the post-war era–largely to help supercharge the peacetime economy–perhaps it realized this day would one day come, the adult order turning on the teenage population to the point that implementing social control through sonic torture (mosquito) would seem wholly appropriate.  A hundred years ago, a shop-keep looking to clear some rambunctious kids off the pickle barrels would have simply come out to shake his fist at them, perhaps bringing a broom or a bucket of water along for additional persuasion.  The mosquito, on the other hand, treats all teenagers as an undifferentiated mass of deviant potentiality, seeking not to discipline the few ‘bad apples’ who might deserve it, but rather to deal with the very category of the teen—biologically and socially—as a structural menace.  For many this strategy seems wholly reasonable.  Shake a broom at some teenagers today and you’re liable to get shot.

“The ‘teenager’ is still a lynchpin of the consumer economy in so many ways; or put more accurately, people between the ages of 13 and 19 still have a lot of influence in the marketplace.  But the willingness of authorities to simply incapacitate and scramble an entire population through acoustic assault suggests ‘the teenager’ as a conceptual category is beginning to fade, soon to become a historical relic. We still need to sell things to them, of course, but actual ‘teenagers’ have become too crafty and noisome to deal with directly anymore.  The recent cultivation of a ‘tweener’ market (pre-adolescents on the threshold of puberty and chronological teendom) suggests the culture industries have had to regroup when it comes to marketing prefabricated crap to a naive and hormonally confused demographic.  In 1969, the possibility of finding a 16-year old Monkees fan was slim–but not necessarily inconceivable.  Today one has to imagine (or perhaps hope) the same could not be said of Justin (Bieber), an act so blandly inoffensive that he would seem in danger of boring even a fetus.  Once 13-year-olds started listening to Megadeath and N.W.A. many, many years ago, the Disney Corporation practically had to invent the tweener in order to better stabilize market predictability.

“Teenage hijinx ceased being adorable almost the moment they were invented.  It may have started out with malt shops and sock-hops, but before anyone knew it, they were all sitting around in the basement stoned listening to Inna-Gadda-Da-Vidda and refusing to mow the lawn. So now that they have become an annoyance en masse for the entire social order, the future seems clear: blast the ‘bad’ ones with ultrasonic frequencies to send them scurrying like cockroaches into the community’s most abject nooks and crannies, and cocoon the “good” ones with consumer electronics until they’re ready to be fully functional butterflies on the outside.  It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.” Jeffrey Sconce

Yikes.  What is the truth in this rant?

By the way, did you know that Walmart is introducing a tween makeup that includes anti-aging ingredients?  Source

In response to the Sconce tirade, PopMatters went off on how today’s teens have only a value when they are purchasing and thus producing.  To quote:  “In many respects, the teenager represents the ideal worker/consumer for the era of the ‘social factory’ and immaterial labor. Teens inhabit a pitiless social world more relentlessly networked than for anyone else (i.e. the networking they perform and the nodes they inhabit in the network have to do only with their identity and their social life; there are no ulterior motives), and their identity is their most pressing existential concern—their main job is to produce an identity that can withstand that ceaseless crucible of scrutiny and mockery and rapidly cycling trends, namely the widely vaunted flexible self of postmodernity. (I think this is a subtext of widely reported digital-bullying stories.) Immersed in that hostile environment wherein nothing is at stake but identity, teens become extremely productive of the sort of immaterial tokens and knowledge and practices that go into projecting identity, ideas that are harvested by the culture industries and marketed as the refined ore of ‘cool’.”   Source

So today’s teens are blasted away from us, best to keep cocooned with electronics and are only of value if they are consuming.  Steven Turner challenged us last month, “We (adults) are much too quick to control and suppress them than we are to teach teenagers how to self-regulate and perhaps even utilize their natural tendencies to shine in their world.”  He used his example as a high school teacher to seniors and how the classroom is designed more for outcomes than for contribution but colleges are looking for contributions from college applicants.  February Pair of Cleats

Back in a previous Pair of Cleats called “A Youth Ministry with Staying Power,” I quoted something from a youth pastor’s blog which I found in 2006 or so.  I still do not know who the author is of this so I apologize again.  To quote this anonymous thinker again: “I think youth ministry must reconsider the fact that it has embraced a power-structure that subjects adolescents to ‘giving their all to Jesus’ with little risk to the youth ministry or the youth pastor.

  • We monitor their behaviors.
  • We channel them toward our events.
  • We use them for our purposes.
  • We often separate them from family and school relationships.
  • We shame them into uniformity.

“And we wonder why they don’t stick around after high school. Let’s just say, we can’t blame the senior pastors. We maybe have to look at ourselves.”  Staying Power

Do you see the string of thought here?  We are believers in teens but are we also treating them like a consumer group?

Could perhaps our churches be a place where teens are not considered bothersome and should be “mosquitoed” or shut away in the youth ministry wing?

Could perhaps our churches be a place where teens have a voice and not be cocooned with electronics including the sound system in the youth ministry room?

Could perhaps our churches be the one place that provides teens a means to exercise autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

The Wild Frontier thought for this month is how will you use the resource of your church to provide what may be the one place where teens are valued and can thrive while surrounded by adults to take their spiritual cues from?