A Story of What We Do as Youth Workers

In the YA fiction secular book, Once Was Lost, by Sara Zarr, the story is about a teen girl’s crisis of faith.Early in the story the plot plays out: “Allie talks some more and I start to envy her Mexico (mission) experience.Right now I would love to have a personal message from God.I want to believe the way I used to, when my dad or mom or sometimes both of them would pray with me at night and I would picture God listening, kind-eyed and bearded.He was real to me, as real as my own parents. I don’t know when God stopped being someone I saw as my true friend, and turned into something I’m mostly confused about. But if I can believe that Allie believes, maybe that would feel close enough.Like if I can latch on to some third-or fourth-hand experience of real faith it will almost be enough to make up for what I’ve lost.”(p. 22)


One of the goals of youth ministry is to guide teens to find their own faith.Not their parent’s faith and not a friend’s faith.From this all-too-real story, yet fictional, we get a glimpse as to why teens cling to a second-or third-hand faith.And this is not necessarily a bad thing.Owning a secondhand faith is part of a teen’s faith formation.In James Fowler’s renowned faith development stages, he calls this stage of developing a secondhand faith as Synthetic-Conventional.Faith is synthetic and conventional by mirroring others who have “made it.”From adolescent development studies, we’ve learned that adolescence is full of mirroring, full of trying on new personalities, new hobbies, new friends, etc.This is also done with faith. It is a good thing when a youth ministry can provide memories that provide secondhand faith experiences.


In Fowler’s work he noted that this stage of Synethetic-Conventional starts at about age 12 and continues into adulthood.Yes, some adults never grow in their faith beyond their secondhand faith.Sadly they keep their convenient faith long into adulthood.I’m sure you and your senior pastor can have a heart-to-heart vent on that topic.


The story of Once Was Lost continues with Sam, the heroine, dealing with two life crises lost in her thoughts and not being able to find clarity or a way through.Near the end of the story, Sam’s lack of clarity climaxes: “I lie on the bed while I wait for Dad, my mind drifting everywhere, until it lands on a prayer.I’m surprised, and resist it at first, but it keeps coming back.It’s not words, so much, just my mind going blank and thoughts reaching up up up, me wishing I could climb through the ceiling and over the stars until I can find God, really see God, and know once and for all that everything I’ve believed my whole life is true, and real.Or, not even everything.Not even half.Just the part about someone or something bigger than us who doesn’t lose track.I want to believe the stories, that there really is someone who would search the whole mountainside just to find that one lost thing that he loves, and bring it home.


“And then something happens.


“These words move through me, but don’t come from me.Not a voice.Not a burning bush or a dove from heaven.Just a sense, a hint, of…presence.Of me knowing it’s going to be okay, and that I’m not alone.It fills my heart.And for a second that I’m turning into one of those people who sees the Virgin Mary in a corn chip, or that all this has finally driven me completely crazy and I’m hearing voices.But then, why couldn’t a face on a corn chip be true, anyway?We believe in a lot of unbelievable stuff.How can we pick and choose which miracles make sense and which don’t?By definition, a miracle doesn’t make sense.


“It’s a low hum.I’m not alone.It’s comfort, it’s words but not words, it’s a song, it’s warm hands around my heart.And even though Jody is gone and my mom isn’t cured and my dad isn’t here, even when he is (the two life crises)…despite all that, I’m not scared.”(pp. 199-200)


Suddenly in the depths of it all Sam has a real encounter with the real God.And it happened in her own space.A youth worker didn’t create this setting.But the youth worker, as well as the parents and the church family, did create the knowledge for Sam to realize that this comfort or this song was God active in her despairing life.Sam was able to recognize that this God is personal.Her faith no longer was secondhand, but firsthand as this was her experience.


Jesse Oakes from Fuller Youth Institute wisely surmised, “Students are navigating adult-sized experiences with kid-sized resources; that is to say, the joys and pains they encounter in their school years are fully grown, while their ability to process those things and make healthy decisions is still developing.” http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/2011/05/meaning-making/ We as youth workers have the opportunity to partner together and provide other role models to offer those adult-sized resources, those mirrors.The more mirrors the better.The more safe interpreters of faith the better.Maybe our greatest role is to provide the experiences and mirrors that help teens interpret when Jesus is close and present in their lives.