The Power of Ritualized Time Together

  • Print

Originally published May 2005.

Here is a brief history of how we got here as a culture:

“In the early industrial revolution, many children and teenage boys and girls worked long hours in the factory under the foreman’s discipline.  In due time, however, economic production by youth increasingly came to be viewed, often rightly, as pernicious and exploitative child labor, which was gradually suppressed by social reforms.  Throughout, childhood and adolescence were being culturally redefined as particular developmental phases of life profoundly different from adulthood.  Further social changes in the twentieth century accelerated the structural disconnection of youth’s lives from the adult world.  The invention of the automobile provided teenagers with a mobility and privacy they had never before known.  Commercial movie theaters, dance halls, and other centers of entertainment had similar effects.  Most important of all, however, was the near complete institutionalization of universal public education.  In fact, it was not until the 1930s that the majority of American youth of high school age became school students.

Comprehensive national child labor laws were finally put into effect in 1934, and state and local governments made major efforts to get youth into schools.  This new state crackdown on truancy was fueled in part by the need prompted by the Great Depression to remove youth from the labor force so they would not compete with adult men for scarce jobs.  With little work to be done, mandatory schooling for teenagers became a means to keep youth off the streets and from being drawn into ‘hobo jungles’ and other worrisome places and activities.

“A mere 70 years ago, then, the majority of teenagers were for the first time in history gathered up together for most of the day, for most days of the week, in single buildings with masses of other boys and girls of the same age, with relatively few adults around to supervise and intervene into the details of their lives.  Mass schooling was the perfect incubator for a new, distinctive youth culture, which blossomed in the following decades.  The word ‘teen-ager’ (its first spelling) was coined during World War II, and by 1945 ‘teenager’ had become a widely used label naming a cultural reality newly come into being.  Postwar prosperity, a widespread perceived ‘return’ to the traditional nuclear family, and the desire of Depression- and war-weary parents to provide their children all the good things they had never enjoyed provided the resources and attitudes further enhancing adolescents’ free time, mobility, and privacy--in short, autonomy from adults.  Peer groups now the lives of youth, competing with parents and other adults in teenagers’ socialization.  The postwar GI Bill also helped rapidly to expand American higher education, further postponing entry into the adult world for millions of young college students and further fostering the evolution of a distinct American youth subculture.  By the 1960s, the civil rights, student, free speech, and anti-Vietnam War movements--in all of which youth played major roles--signified new levels of youth independence from the control of the adult world.  The trend continued.  Macroeconomic changes after 1970 accelerated the entry of women, including mothers of adolescents, into the paid labor force.  The no-fault divorce revolution of the 1970s and other social forces significantly increased the number of single-parent households increasingly on their own, both alone and with other youth, for growing numbers of hours of the day and night.  This high degree of youth autonomy has become the normalized reality for every many adolescents among working poor, middle-class, and upper-middle-class families alike.”  (Soul Searching, Dr. Christian Smith, pp. 183-184)

This is where we are today.  As you can see what we got today happened slowly over time, often done with the intentions of helping youth.  The good news, I believe, is a slowly emerging trend of parents calling a stop to the crazy scheduling and family meals in the SUVs and a valuing of family time again.  Done with the intentions of helping youth.

That brief history is enough to absorb for one Pair of Cleats.  But I want to tie that in to a quote from Chap Clark’s book, Hurt. "They (teens) want and need adults, but because many (or even some) of the adults they have known over the years have participated in abandoning them, they have little trust in any adult (and for most, during midadolescence, that includes their parents, at least for a season).  A middle adolescent (grades 9-12), then, simply will not come halfway--why should they risk more disappointment?  An adult who wants to connect but who demands that midadolescents come halfway only serves to confirm the mistrust they feel and deepen the divide between adolescents and adults.  To the midadolescent, this attitude is yet another confirmation of abandonment." (p. 54)

I came to that understanding just a few years ago.  I thought I had the inside track on teens because I was a youth minister, I was not the parent, I was (I hope I still am!) cool and I am very studied on them.   But the truth is, teens live in a secret world from adults, no matter how cool or important you are.  It was good for me to face that reality and minister from this better perception.

I have another quote to add to this conversation.  Mark DeVries addressed one way how youth ministry abandons teens.  It is the oft-recommended idea to put students in leadership positions.  It is the answer given by many veteran youth workers in answer to the question of what to do to revitalize the youth ministry when the youth become uninterested or who have stopped attending.  To quote DeVries, “I’m not saying student leadership is wrong.  I’m saying student leadership is the wrong place to start building a thriving ministry.  The answer is not to remove adults from the equation, as if we were the problem in the first place.  When a youth ministry is in trouble, the solution will never come from adults abdicating responsibility and yielding it to those least qualified, least experienced, and least likely to be around long enough to live with the disasters their decisions create.  The so-called youth-driven approach, in many cases, amounts to nothing more than a spiritualized way of reinforcing the culture’s dominant message to kids: ‘You’re on your own.’”  (Mark DeVries, Group, March/April 2004)

Again with good intentions, we have abandoned our youth.  So how do you minister to this secret world in your youth ministry knowing that the youth will not come halfway and that they feel abandoned by adults all around?

I found a simplistic but powerful answer in another book that has nothing to do with this topic.  This is from a quoted letter from a then 20-year old:  "In the last six years I have come to feel strongly that parents need to spend one-to-one time with their teenagers.  Ritualized time together, however long or short, allows trust to build in a healthy, deliberate manner.  The ritual time I shared with my father (every night at bedtime until age 13, then ice cream out once a week) helped me connect with him as a respectful adult and parent, who, through it all, was there for me regardless of whether I felt like sharing my problems."  (Putting Family First, p. 79)

The answer is in ritualized time together.  Of course, with parents first.  But we also are able to have that ritualized time together in youth ministry.  Our schedules are built on it.  Sometimes we feel overwhelmed with schedules and programs.  We sweat over the creativity of these times together so they are somewhat memorable.  Sometimes we devalue Sunday School as not important when in reality this is truly ritualized time together. 

The bottom-line is that these ritualized times together are important.  The times we teach from the Bible (why they are scheduling church into their busy schedules) and the relational bonuses of these ritualized times together are crucial.  Last month we addressed programming to bring youth to the center of community life of the church that brings faith near.  Program is ritualized time together. 

Some would think that the word ritual mixed with youth ministry would not be good or should even be chastised.  From an insightful young adult’s point of view, this is crucial to “allow trust to build in a healthy, deliberate manner.”  Ritual is good.  Maximize these you already have programmed in.  You will hear about their value in years to come.