They’re Watching Us

They're Watching Us for urban faithAfter my 13-year-old’s jarring confession, I talked to other youth about their impressions of God, the church, and “Christ vs. Christianity.” I quickly discovered that my son was not alone in his doubts about the integrity of adult Christians.

In my last column, I related part of a conversation I had with my 13-year-old son during the Christmas holiday break, wherein he admitted some resistance to how Christians package Christianity by emphasizing the rules and not so much the Ruler. “I want to walk with Christ,” he said. “It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.” His comments jarred me, to say the least.

As a result, I wanted to know what other teenagers think about his remarks, so I had a conversation with a youth group from a local church. These questions were running through my mind: Do they feel the same way? Are they drawing the same distinction he is between following Jesus and adhering to the system of Christianity? What has their Christian experience been like? You never know ahead of time how a discussion with young people might turn out, but I hoped for the best. They didn’t disappoint.

The group consisted of seven kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, two males and five females. I could tell they weren’t sure what to expect either, so I did my best to put them at ease by telling them what I would use the information for, that no one’s name would be mentioned, and that I was not there to gather intel for the church administration or their parents. With those preliminaries covered, we plunged right in.

Our discussion started with their feedback on my son’s statement about being OK with Christ, but not so much OK with Christianity. Several in the group expressed right away that they totally understand where my son’s coming from. They see what they call hypocrisy among adult Christians who say one thing but do another. They admitted that the level of hypocrisy depends on the individual and even the church to which one belongs. They are turned off by this apparent double-speak, and their body language and tone suggested that they are indeed a little insulted that adults don’t seem to realize how transparent they really are. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” cliché clearly doesn’t work, and these teens seem to find this especially notable given how much adults emphasize the “what” of Christianity, while downplaying the “Who” or “why.”

Moreover, their comments demonstrate the very point they’re making. Although I asked them directly about any distinction they saw between Christ the person and Christianity the faith, they said very little about Jesus Himself; the overwhelming majority of their discussion focused on Christians, Christianity, and other faith concepts. I see this as a reflection of our own tendency to relegate Jesus to background status as we attempt to translate the faith for unbelievers and youth into a modern, hip (and sometimes hip-hop) version we feel will be more palatable to them.

The group participants see this emphasis on “what” manifested in how much they hear “the Bible says …” As someone who is very committed to the authority of the Scriptures, this idea immediately caught my attention. I wanted to know how they feel about the Bible. Do they believe it is authoritative or just a book full of suggestions for how to behave? One young lady was very clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the Bible, per se, but she gets tired of hearing the answers to all her questions begin with that phrase; not so much because she doesn’t want to know what the Bible says, but because she knows there’s not going to be any explanation of what the Bible means by what it says. The group agreed. According to them, it detracts from the power of the Bible when Christians stress the commands and instructions therein without showing them how to practically live according to those commands and instructions. They want to hear and see what the Bible says. There is a genuine interest in knowing how to apply the Word to their everyday lives — what Solomon referred to as wisdom — but we are coming up short by not encouraging them to get understanding as well as knowledge.

This particular segment of our discussion really brought home to me an observation I’ve made about churches and Christians. In many cases, we’ve not effectively made the transition from Old Testament Christians (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron) to disciples under a new covenant brokered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we ourselves really believe that it is no longer our works that save us, but His redemptive work on the cross? Are we grasping the explanation James gives to us about the relationship between faith and works, without also remembering what Paul says about grace and works? Our young people’s resentment of the Bible might be rooted in our own inability to demonstrate what it means to obey the Lord’s commands as an act of love and commitment rather than as a performance-based ritual.

Our discussion of Christianity led to a fascinating talk about the church. The roundtable participants showed a fair amount of confusion about the role and purpose of the church. Their overall sense is that people are going to do what they want to do, no matter what anyone says.

I couldn’t help but think how saturated even churched and Christian youth are with the concept of individual choice and everyone’s “right” to make their own decisions. I pressed them pretty hard on these points by asking them, if the power of individual choice is so strong, what purpose does the church really serve? Can we ever hope to impact people’s lives if they’re going to go their own way regardless of what’s proclaimed by the church? Their view was further tested when I asked how they think the church should try to address social problems like unbiblical sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. And what does our apparent cultural impotence mean for our command to bring people to Christ? You could’ve heard a rat walk on cotton at this point.

Even though it was obvious they didn’t know how to answer these questions, I was gratified to see them really struggling with it. Our spiritual ancestors knew that we have a faith able to withstand even the most robust questioning and debate. I’m not sure we have that same appreciation anymore for the value of a strong apologetic. And more than anything, I sensed that these young people are dying for us to boldly show them that our faith can stand up to peer pressure, sexual temptation, premature childbearing, broken families, broken hearts, corrupt politics, prejudice, poverty, and anything else they might encounter.

So how did our stalemate of silence end? As it often does when we find ourselves in a faith quandary, one voice offers a tentative suggestion. In this case, the 17-year-old male said this in answer to my challenges: “Hope. It all comes down to hope.”

I could almost visibly see the dam breaking. “Yeah, hope and faith,” someone else said. Everyone nodded their agreement. They concluded that even though people might not listen and it may not seem as if any change is taking place, we as the church can offer hope to those who would listen. And we take it on faith that somehow, with God’s help, a change can be made.

In the end, they realized they didn’t have a lot of answers, and I don’t think they necessarily changed their minds about how they see adult Christians and our issues. But I’m certain they left that room reminded that when it’s all said and done, Christianity and Christ are tied together by two indomitable forces of our belief system: faith and hope. I can’t argue with that.

Beyond ‘Birds and Bees’

When it comes to sexual issues, our teens are depending on us for more than just the standard “how-to / don’t-do” talk. Parents, churches, and youth leaders must go deeper — emotionally and spiritually. PART 3 IN A SPECIAL SERIES.

Beyond 'Birds and Bees' for urban faithEarlier this year, in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we looked at urban teenagers’ attitudes about sex, and their behaviors and practices that reflect those attitudes. Part 2 ended with a question about how parents and churches can fill the gap in teens’ knowledge about sexual health issues and thereby prompt a change in their behavior. We now tackle that tricky subject.

There’s good news and bad news about what inner-city teens seem to know about sex. The good news is that parents and church leaders rank very high on their list of people who can influence what they know and think about sexual issues. The bad news is that neither parents nor churches are doing a particularly good job of cashing in on their credibility currency. Here are some principles to consider as we all ponder how to help our teenagers recover lost ground and gain solid footing in areas of sexuality.

Principle 1: Changed Behavior is the Result of a Changed Mind. With so many programs, theories, and strategies jostling for ideological supremacy when it comes to reducing teen pregnancy and making a dent in teens’ sexual risk-taking, people of faith sometimes forget The Source of all wisdom — the Bible. Our source tells us that we experience transformation as a result of a renewed mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can expect youth to behave differently when they think differently about love, sex, marriage, intimacy, and relationships. Some would object, “We can’t just beat kids over the head with the Bible.” True in most cases, but that doesn’t mean parents, pastors, youth ministers, and others can’t or shouldn’t explain and demonstrate biblical principles in an authentic, consistent way, showing clear relevance between those principles and their everyday lives. The 2008 Faith-Based Urban Youth Workers Focus Group study (YWS) results support this reality. Youth workers surveyed indicated:

The only reason given for not doing it [having sex] is that the Word says it. The real reason is not talked about. No one explains that God has created you as a sexual being, etc. Sex is about what is in your heart.

So how would this work on the streets with the kids? It means rather than just saying “The Bible says don’t have sex unless you’re married,” maybe we should talk about the fact that they have been created as a unique person with gifts, talents, and abilities and that their sexuality is just one part — albeit an important one — of who they are. Giving teens a context for their urges and passions can help them see a bigger picture that encompasses more than their next hook up.

An important point to keep in mind here is that knowledge is not the same as a changed mind. Simply slogging through facts and figures about STDs and showing a 17-year-old boy how to use a condom does not translate into renewed thinking. When a teenage girl decides she doesn’t want to be alone with her boyfriend in his apartment any more, that’s a mind shift that results from her internalizing the principle that she should manage her relationship to avoid situations that will put undue pressure on her ability to resist a sexual advance. In the faith community, that’s known as not making provision for the flesh (see Romans 13:11-14). On the streets, that’s called handling your business.

Principle 2: Go After the Root, Not Just the Fruit.

“[P]rograms should address and enhance self-esteem. ‘If your self-esteem is non-existent, you’ll do lots of things because you don’t think you’re worth anything. Until you grasp your worth, you get pregnant to fill that gap.”

“In general,…funding for programs should be focused on helping young people with the range of challenges they face. …[C]urrent programs are ‘not getting to the core of the problem.'”

The YWS participants quoted above understand that trite messages don’t cut it with today’s technologically savvy, yet emotionally wounded urban teens. And thoughtful educators are joining parents and other faith-based leaders who know that the best sexual health education is whole-person education. It’s no longer sufficient to only stress teaching teens to focus on risk-reduction techniques. Clearly that has not worked. One of two Black teenage girls having an STD is living proof of that. Risk reduction is giving way to risk avoidance, reflecting a much-needed concern for young people’s emotional and spiritual selves in addition to their physical health. So parents and the church must switch from managing consequences to dealing with root issues. But this approach requires some housecleaning for adults as well.

Many parents themselves are more afraid of their daughter getting pregnant than they are of her devaluing herself and growing up insecure and emotionally damaged. Let’s face it — we’re much more likely to hear, “Don’t come home with no babies” than we are to hear, “Don’t come home heartbroken and with intimacy issues.” Of course, neither outcome is desirable, but why don’t we express as much concern for our teens’ emotional wellbeing as we do for pregnancy and disease?

The church suffers from the same mindset. We ask, “Why are so many girls in youth group getting pregnant?” rather than, “Why are so many of our teenagers driven by lust, and why are they lonely and depressed?” It shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or proposition, but it is a matter of emphasis. The reasons surely are complex, but we must work through them if we realistically hope to bring true transformation to our youth.

Whether we rise to this occasion or not, parents and the church are in fact in the best position to address root issues in a teen’s life. For one thing, a school environment, and to a lesser extent a non-faith-based community program, isn’t necessarily the best social space to discuss some of the conversation that would likely surface in discussions about root issues. It’s much less likely that a teenage girl in an inner-city school is going to open up about her family history that’s contributing to her sexual acting out.

Conversely, the natural rhythms of family life, and the spiritual focus of a church are natural places to discuss emotional responsibility, intimacy, the real-life realities of romantic love, and other related concepts. We just need to take advantage of this dynamic.

Principle 3: Know the Deal and Keep it Real. Uninformed adults trying to talk to teens about sex is a waste of time. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MI) suggests that parents educate themselves about the incidence of teen sex and what their kids are learning in their school sex education class. Other experts counsel that parents find out what their teens listen to and watch. There are certainly plenty of websites, books, brochures and other media to help answer these questions. But from personal experience, the best way to tune in to the mind and heart of a teenager is to simply listen and observe. Listen to how young people describe their friendships, the reasons they give for liking certain kinds of music and movies; and observe their emotional responses to the events in their lives. It’s not always easy to get kids to talk, but the more you sincerely listen the more they talk.

But what about those kids whose parents are bogged down working two jobs, or they don’t even know their parents, or they rarely know where their parents are? These are the tough cases, but this principle still applies. Here is where the church and faith-based community groups can help. Organizations and ministries with experience working with the hardest urban youth — groups like Fuller Youth Institute, Urban Youth Workers Institute, the Center for Parent & Youth Understanding, and others — echo the same refrain: young people want to be heard. But they want to interact with adults who know something about their day-to-day experience and who are available to them. But often churches suffer from the same adult absenteeism as do individual families. Another instance where adults need to do some soul-searching.

The old cultural dynamic of taking care of one another needs to be reinstated among us. Our current mentality of doing just enough to take care of our own is leaving too many of us uncared for. We’ve become strangers to sacrifice, and that’s what it’s going to take to reclaim our urban teens. Maybe our son doesn’t need to play four sports and see every first-run movie the moment it hits the screen. Perhaps we could cut down on two activities and use that time to help out with the youth group at our church.

In addition to knowing what’s going on in young people’s lives, parents and church members would do well to be more open to sharing their own personal stories as they relate to sexual decisions and choices. This seems especially difficult for us. Parents don’t want to lose face as they try to direct their teens, and some old-guard congregations believe that “airing dirty laundry” simply promotes unhealthy lifestyles. Even the government understands the fallacy of this thinking. Through its “Parents, Speak Up!” campaign, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services encourages parents to discuss with their children the importance of waiting to have sex:

Maybe you made different choices when you were young and don’t want to seem like a hypocrite. While [this reason is] understandable, you still owe it to your teen to put [it] aside. Healthy choices will better prepare your teen to deal with sex; and you need to help your teen make healthy choices.

We can use these discussions to show empathy for the pressure teens feel, and more importantly, to testify to the redeeming power of Christ. What better way to introduce them to the Christian faith?

Getting urban teens to hear and understand the truths regarding sexual lifestyles and behaviors is so critical, and we can’t afford to continue to lose this battle. It’s not about a culture war; it’s about young women and men who are looking for us to step up and make a difference in their lives.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? This article suggests a few principles that might help, but what has been your experience with this issue? Many UrbanFaith readers are parents, youth leaders, or former teens who have “been there” and have invaluable wisdom to offer. How can parents, churches, and youth ministries make inroads with urban youth on this critical issue?

Share some of your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations in the comments section below, and let us know if it would be okay to contact you for a follow-up interview. We’ll feature a roundup of some of the best stories, ideas, and strategies in a future UrbanFaith article.


Talking to Your Pre-Teen or Teen About Waiting.
Advice for parents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site also features tips and information for talking to teens about general sexual development and risky behaviors.

• Urban Youth Workers Institute Focus Group Survey, October 2008.
The purpose of these focus groups was twofold: (1) to learn from youth workers about the ethnically diverse teens they serve and to explore teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and parenting; and (2) to hear from youth workers themselves about unplanned pregnancy among their 20-something peers.

• Black Youth Project, June 2007.
This project examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics.

Also be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of special articles by Chandra White-Cummings.

The Night the Cops Broke In

The Night the Cops Broke In for urban faithSince the Henry Louis Gates story hit the news last week, I’ve thought about countless encounters my friends and I have had with the police. But an experience I had two years ago stands out.

My wife and I were at a staff Christmas dinner. Our children were at home with two baby-sitters, the son of another staffer and my wife’s cousin. While enjoying a spread of Mexican food, I got a call.

“Jay is in your driveway, and the police have him handcuffed!”


Sex Ed. on the 4 Train

Sex Ed. on the 4 TrainThe other night as I rode the subway home from a meeting, I took my seat in the middle of a condom rally. Yes, that’s right, a condom rally. When I sat down, I was across from two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who were sitting across from two of their friends who were standing in front of the subway-car doors. This set of parallel teenagers each had condoms in their hands and were exchanging them with each other by airborne express. The pair I was sitting across from were remarking on how cool they thought it was that their friends’ school handed out condoms in bulk.

Without Boundaries

Without Boundaries

Teenagers are trying things that not only degrade them as human beings, but also set them up for possible adulthood addictions that could take a lifetime to overcome. (Persons pictured are models; image is for illustrative purposes only.)

In Part 1 of this special series we surveyed disturbing trends among urban teens when it comes to their attitudes about sex, relationships, and teen pregnancy. A 2008 study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTP) spoke to a variety of urban youth workers about the things they’re witnessing among the teens they serve. A lack of positive role models, a glorification of teen pregnancy, and a failure on the part of faith institutions to more directly address the issue of sex were among the top problems they observed.

“These are issues that young adults are dealing with but the church isn’t talking about,” said one youth worker. And that’s the point of this series.