We’ve all got them. The super awkward kids. The ones who don’t have friends or places in our youth ministries. Those who are desperately searching for places to belong; pleading for somebody to show them how to navigate the crux between possibility and nothingness. The space in the margins is thin and not for the faint of heart.
There’s something about that tunnel that leads to downtown. It’s glorious at night. Just glorious. You start on one side of the mountain, and it’s dark, and the radio is loud. As you enter the tunnel, the wind gets sucked away, and you squint from the lights overhead. When you adjust to the lights, you can see the other side in the distance just as the sound of the radio fades because the waves just can’t reach. Then, you’re in the middle of the tunnel, and everything becomes a calm dream. As you see the opening get closer, you just can’t get there fast enough. And finally, just when you think you’ll never get there, you see the opening right in front of you. And the radio comes back even louder than you remember it. And the wind is waiting. And you fly out of the tunnel onto the bridge. And there it is. The city. A million lights and buildings and everything seems as exciting as the first time you saw it. It really is a grand entrance.
A Million Lights
My vision for youth ministry looks a lot like this quote above. It’s glorious. It has dark parts. It can be noisy and sometimes I have to squint at the pieces. I hunker down, adjust, seek, dream and at the end of the tunnel, the city in all its glory. A million lights. I am right back where I began, excited like the first time I encountered it. The above quote probably seems like mass chaos. Put it together with Charlie and you would find love. Charlie, the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writes a series of haunting letters addressed only to “Dear Friend,” which brings the reader into the heartbeat of his struggle to fit in, find the will to “participate in life”, and to cope with the realities of the larger world as he learns how to grow up. He is a quintessential kid on the margins in our youth ministries. While there is nothing inherently “evangelical” about the book itself, I believe it has the power to speak within a generation that desires to be heard, understood, and loved which is at the heart of every teen we serve in youth ministry.
When I dream of youth ministry, I dream of love, creativity, imagination, safety; a place where all of these adjectives can be used to describe actions that can ultimately be lived out in community. I believe less in facts only designed for one demographic and more in a holistic approach to ministry that values the individual as a person in the community with the hallmark of that approach being love. It is through a teenager’s engagement with love that they infect others around them with love. I believe it is only through the lens of Christology that the idea of love begins to take shape.
Love for the Marginalized
When I speak of love, I think of it as an intentional act, a response to God and others. Jesus’ own actions of love toward the marginalized were broad. While he talked of love, he was quick to demonstrate. He washed feet, ate with the tax collectors, gave to the poor, fed the hungry, blessed the children, healed those who were ill. He consistently broke social conventions and assumed the role of the servant to model love. Even the letters that Paul writes in the New Testament ooze of the love that Christ has for his people.
When I say love, I am also speaking of love with a view of the cross. Often, this love is associated with symbols plastered on shirts and mugs handed out freely to distinguish believers from those who simply don’t. Today you can find it on just about anything. A teenager would wear it or even have it tattooed on their bodies but it has lost its shock value. The cross was, at one point in time, a graphic reminder of suffering at the hands of others. Crucifixion itself was, by design, a demonstration of complete vulnerability. It allowed mockery and allowed those who were crucified to be used as an example. Crucifixion was as brutally awful as it was depicted and Pilate’s hesitant response to crucify an innocent man should give some inkling as to the humanity of what happened. Christ was selfless when he chose to hang on the cross. It was a painful act of suffering. However, it was not the only act in which his humanity rested.
The Crux between possibility and nothingness
To not invite a teenager into the action of God is to leave them to continue to struggle between possibility and nothingness; a crux in adolescence. Christ is yesterday, today, and forever. Christ acted, is acting, and continues to act. This very idea of inviting a teenager into God’s action is an act of love; especially for our marginalized students. To leave a teenager stranded between possibility and nothingness perpetuates the kinds of ideology already whispered in their ears.
Have you ever heard the expression “sometimes those who need the most love show it in the most unloving of ways”? Sometimes that sums up Alex for me. I have a special place in my heart for him. I love this kid but he made me angrier than my other students too. Like the day he showed up to Sunday School high and hungover. If cuss words were appropriate, the cuss words would have flowed in our little slice of paradise on the second floor of our church. Alex’s early childhood was the definition of unstable. Alex grew up in a one-parent household for most of his life having one parent in and out of jail. But, his life drastically changed in his early teens and he received a parent who also happened to serve the church.
His behavior was (and still is) legendary. He was going to be my “problem child.” I was “definitely going to kick him out of youth.” And “he wasn’t going to be worth my time.” In my first week in the office every single youth worker had a different story to share about Alex. He was the kind of student that others tolerated but weren’t exactly sad about when he was missing from an event. The night he smoked his e-cig on my bus, I was done. Shock value was important to Alex and so I played it cool. I regularly took my students to eat fast food when we needed to have a heart to heart.
So, Alex and I sat at a local fast food restaurant after school discussing his antics: the coming to church high and hungover, the smoking on my bus, things at home. The issues weren’t the issue. The conversation ebbed and flowed and ultimately landed with him pouring out his heart about how his parents care more about their jobs and never pay attention to where he is which often led to setting rules and unrealistic expectations. There was nothing stable. He felt like he was going nowhere in life. When his addiction started in his early teens, his parents allowed it. He knew the nature of his parents’ jobs meant multiple moves when he simply wanted roots. In our town, the jobs were hard to come by and when I asked him what he planned to do with his life his response was: “I’ve got his friends. I’ll go on welfare. Maybe I’ll have a couple of kids. I’ll get government housing. Maybe I’ll get on at the factory.” This is the crux between possibility and nothingness.
Love is a verbTeenagers accept the love they think they deserve. Click To Tweet
Alex accepted the love he thought he deserved. It is not kind words, physical affection, or anything remotely different than what happens at a house full of people claiming no faith at all. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Alex. This is a similar story among many of the students in that youth group. If the love that we think we deserve looks a lot like the love we are given by our earthly families, why would teenagers accept love from God or even a youth leader? And how does one go about implementing that in youth ministry?
“The question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” – Martin Luther King Jr. Letters from the Birmingham Jail
Cliché as it may be, love is a verb. It is an action. When we choose to love God, it becomes a natural desire to seek God. In Matthew 22:37-38, we are told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is itself an action. Teenager’s actions are wrapped in all sorts of feelings. These feelings come from other places and other experiences. At their very core, teenagers are naturally loving beings. They are starved for attention and a genuine desire to have someone listen to them. They are naturally affectionate toward one another except when someone is on the margins. This is the point where it becomes the responsibility of those in leadership to bridge the gaps between the marginalized kids and the others in our group. The only way I knew how to bridge the gap was to love, acknowledge, include and encourage. In that context, I often saw them buy food for one another knowing it was one less meal the other would go without that weekend. A simple act. An act not unlike that of Jesus himself.
 Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky. Pg. 191-192
 Chbosky Pg. 214
Tori Mick is the Director of Youth Ministries for Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA. She earned her M.A. in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary and The Center for Youth Ministry Training. She is passionate about youth, worship, social justice, and issues of race. When she’s not hanging out with her students, you can find her hanging out with her sweet dog Roscoe, traveling, trying new food, or reading a great book. You can connect with Tori on INSTAGRAM, TWITTER or her BLOG.