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Teenagers trail clouds of glory

11 October 2013

Young people have an intense and eager relationship with God, says Tess Kuin Lawton


Time to rebuild: the ruins of Hamas's interior ministry in Gaza on Monday

Time to rebuild: the ruins of Hamas's interior ministry in Gaza on Monday

IT IS a mistake to think that teenagers are not interested in Christianity. They are hungry for knowledge and experience. We need to learn more about how to feed them.

Teenagers understand human relations better than we older people do. We no longer live in a world where they must be seen but not heard, but we do often treat them like wallpaper. I have seen people talk about teenagers in front of them, as if they are not there. But I have also seen how teenagers are alert to everything that is going on around them (while apparently still being only half-awake).

Teenage boys in particular are renowned for going into the dark tunnel of adolescence and reducing communication to single-syllable grunts. But try asking them about the relationships between the extended family after attending a wedding, and they will shock you with their insights.

I am certain that being 14 or 16 gives you an alertness to relationships that older people have long since lost. At the age of 16, you notice the messages that people give with their eyes and their bodies. You notice the way a lip curls, or a hip sways.

We live out our relationships in front of them daily, and they learn from every single thing that parents do. The lesson is to ask them questions, expecting wisdom; and to teach by example.

TEENAGERS have a more intense relationship with God than we have. I tell my pupils that the prayers of children reach the ears of God faster than anyone else's. And I believe it.

There is something about the circle of life and children's being closer to its genesis that makes me believe that they have a purer connection to God. We hear about "thin" places and times, where the veil between God and humankind seems permeable. Teenagers live in thin spaces all the time. Their senses are on overdrive, and their antennae will pick up God in an instant, if there are people whose lives or teaching can lift the veil.

We find it hard to talk to teenagers at the best of times; so the idea of talking about their prayer life may seem intrusive. In my experience, it opens up the most extraordinary conversations. One boy said to me recently: "I live in a permanent state of thanksgiving to God. Every day is precious."

They pray at the end of the day, in the shower, and on the bus. They pray song lyrics with their earphones in, and they always want to talk about prayer. When I tell them that I pray for the whole school, by name, every day, they are delighted. 

TEENAGERS understand God because they understand suffering. Part of living in thin places is the fact that many teenagers are acquainted with the valley of the shadow of death. They live with life-and-death issues in a way that feels shocking to adults, because they seem to treat life with little care.

They take drugs, they drink themselves stupid, they have risky sex, they drive too fast, they never wear cycle helmets. Life is lived right up to the edges and in abundance. Of course, not all teenagers indulge in this stereotype, and many will not have got blindingly drunk nor had sex until after they leave school. But the notion of living life to its fullest still holds true.

The fact that she cannot find her hair clips, two minutes before she is supposed to be leaving, is actually the end of the world. The fact that his gum shield is not immediately available as he runs out of the door is worse than the Syrian crisis. But the truth is also that she has spent the day at school trying to get her head around another friend's anorexia, and he spent last night working out ways to say no to drugs.

This abundance of life is what God knows about. What we need to learn how to do is to teach and show them the abundance of God's grace.

TEENAGERS are deeply conservative. In church, they are the ones who complain about proposals to sell the pews and buy chairs. In school chapel, they are the ones who complain when we change the translation of the Bible from King James to New International Version.

They value tradition, although they will not often be able to express this until they move on to the next stage of their lives. I am convinced that it is because their internal lives are in a state of flux. They need a place of safety and constancy.

This is not to argue for all churches to follow my particular tradition of Anglo-Catholic worship (although we can do lights, smoke, and mystery as well as any night-club), but to say that priests and worship leaders should not fall into the trap of assuming that youth work is about endless innovation.

Do what you do, do it well, ask the young people for their opinions (have them on the PCC, for example), and don't change it. These are simple suggestions for any church tradition. Young people need stability. They might not appreciate it for many years, and at times they will be very rude about it. But they need it.

TEENAGERS are ignorant about God, but open to the idea of God. We all know that the majority of young people are uneducated in religion. It is alien, but interesting. Adolescence is one of the times of life when you are genuinely open to the world. You are constantly trying to work out who you are, and what you are here for: hence the experimentation with hair, make-up, drugs, alcohol, clothes.

They live as closely to the huge

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