Do Youth Have Souls?

by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– March 4, 2001 –


To any young people who are here right now, I want to say right off: most of this sermon is going to be talking about youth (as a group) to the adults that are here. So think of it as a chance to listen in on a juicy adult conversation. There is an important message for you in here, too, but the talk was composed mostly to speak to Paint Branch adults. I look forward to other opportunities to interact with you more directly.

Okay, the rest of you: think back to when you were a youth–your own later teenage years. (Take a deep breath, and don’t flinch.) When you look back at yourself, do you have a predominantly negative or positive image of that time in your life? You might have had plenty of positive experiences, but don’t we tend to remember most vividly the harsher moments, the oppressions, the failures and our particular brand of teenage dread?

I think it’s fair to say that a common adult assumption or stereotype, frequently drawn from looking back on our own youthfulness, is that it’s an era loaded with pain and anxieties of one sort or another. I don’t deny that those and other negative qualities can indeed be present, but I am not convinced that they must dominate and that adolescence, then, is inevitably a time most people later want to or do forget. No, I believe that the years of youth are inherently very worthy ones, and not just because they are a gateway to the glorious achievement of adulthood.

It is a time of powerful meaning-making and creative emergence, a time when youth have worth for just who and what they are: youth–nothing more but nothing less, either. Of course, some paths can lead youth deeper into the negative aspects, while other paths can promote strong self-development and creative fulfillment. And this is where community comes in.

It matters that our UU youth groups exist and thrive. For instance, the Columbine UU Church outside Denver was only a dozen miles away from the church Barbara and I were serving as interim co-ministers when the tragic shootings at Columbine high school occurred a couple springs ago now. The Columbine UU church is only a few blocks from the high school, and their minister then, Joel Miller, was the first clergyperson on the scene that terrible afternoon. He has described the importance of the UU youth group there as a place where some of the Columbine youth could feel like they belonged.

My friend and colleague Joel’s life was indelibly altered by his deep involvement in the aftermath of that tragedy. He now tells anyone who will listen: our youth groups save lives! From my years in youth work, I can tell also testify to the same conclusion. Even my own story is a reinforcement of this message.

I attended religious education classes in one UU congregation from kindergarten through high school. It was a place and a bunch of people–a community–that I came to know well and cherish, especially since the rough neighborhood where my family lived until I was 11 was pretty hard on a gangly, naïve kid like me. (We moved after my 5th grade year so I could escape that dangerous neighborhood, and even though we lived in three different houses, each time we moved closer to that same UU church.)

Upon reflection, I realize that one predominant message I got from church adults during my upbringing as a young Unitarian Universalist was: "You are valuable just as you are." I cannot imagine what my life would be like today if I had not received this message, particularly from my youth group advisors.

With that regular affirmation from people who weren’t my parents, I tried hard to earn the trust of adults and found myself able to take on considerable responsibility in my local UU youth group, regional conferences and a UU summer youth camp. I parlayed confidence and training from these events into leadership at my high school as well.

The point is that I experienced myself as an important contributor to many settings, taking to heart the message that I was indeed valuable, with a lot to offer just as I was right then, as a youth. I also had my share of struggles, pains and anxieties, but the primary lens I look back through is a positive one. I am grateful and proud of this, my own UU heritage.

 "You are valuable just as you are." This is a very powerful and deeply religious message, born especially of Universalist roots–and true, I believe, for everyone. Yet how often does it get through to adults, let alone to youth? Chances are, if you don’t hear it as a youth, you’ll have a hard time hearing it as an adult, too. Our teenage years are very formative ones. Imagine what would happen in our culture if all youth were told, regularly and unequivocally, "You are valuable, just as you are." We frequently say this or something like it, in the spirit of unconditional love, to younger children, but come the teenage years, it seems common that the personal delivery of such an affirming message can drift off, fade away, evaporate.

Instead, the message that often does come through is quite the opposite. Our mainstream culture tells youth–and most of us, really–that we aren't nearly good enough, so we need this product, this new look, this much money, this kind of success, etc. It seems that as soon as we're old enough to be consumers we are convinced that we need more of whatever is being sold to us in order to be a truly valuable person.

Youth might at times appear to be very counter-culture, but this insidious message of inherent inadequacy can sink in nonetheless. There are thousands of very bright people delivering this message daily in very seductive ways because it makes them a lot of money. It’s the gospel preached by the religion of Materialism, and Americans have been buying it–literally–for decades.

If you have any doubt about the effect of this secular religion on youth, you probably didn’t watch a recent television show called "The Merchants of Cool," which diagrammed the methodical way advertisers effectively capitalize on–and even create the latest cool teenage fads in order to link their products to them and convince young people to buy, buy, buy. It’s a pretty chilling process.

Young people are prime targets for a fierce consumer evangelism that promotes the doctrine of inherent inadequacy which, in turn, urges receptive young personalities to try to become more adequate through the use of expensive products. "Don’t be a little kid anymore! Buy this, to be more grown-up!" (Or, in some cases, it’s: "Buy this, to be better than grown-ups!")

But an irony is that, meanwhile, the same industry has done a good job convincing many older people that they won't be worth anything, either, unless they somehow recapture their youth. ("Buy this, to be younger!") The preachers of Materialism gets us coming and going. When we feel inherently inadequate, we are like bottomless pits of need, which is why the gospel of Materialism is so awesomely successful. It’s like the water fish swim in; we just breathe it without thinking.

One result of this double curse is that he generational divide between youth and adults in a congregation can be huge, as neither side wants anything to do with the other, largely because they’ve each been taught by the gospel of Materialism to disrespect the other age group. Why? Because it’s much more profitable if people hunker down in an "us vs. them" mentality, and seek to satisfy their hungers for connection through products rather than through relationships.

Today, one of the most revolutionary things any of us can do, I think, is to cultivate intergenerational friendships that affirm in both directions–and one of the best places to foment that revolution is in a church community like ours, where Materialism is not the religion of choice. This is, however, not an easy step to take, because so many forces are aligned against it, but it is possible to build and sustain a thriving youth ministry, if an organization has the vision, the courage, the leadership. Happily, Paint Branch is definitely gaining on this. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

First, let’s look at what I call "homebred" UUs, folks raised in this liberal religious movement. (And I say "homebred" intentionally, because the titles "birthright" or "born UU" excludes those of us who enter into UU religious education at younger years.) What percentage of our Paint Branch community do you think could be considered "homebred" UUs? Call out some estimates… [Most estimates are between 2% and 15%.]

Well, when you look at the make-up of UU congregations that are any distance from Boston, yes, usually only about 10% of the adults were raised UU, and I believe it might be even a little lower here. But was that really what I asked? Think again about the way you approached this question. I asked, "What percentage of our Paint Branch community could be considered homebred UUs?" And you probably only included adults in that picture.

It would be quite natural, when 90% or more of you did not grow up UU, to forget that the hundred or so young people in our RE program are already "homebred" UUs and an important part of this community. A more accurate portion of Paint Branch that is "homebred" would be close to 30%, almost a third. The young people among us now who stick with it as they grow up will have this liberal religion as their primary, formative religious identification, as is the case for some of us adults, too.

Let me ask those of you here today who were raised UU, like me and Barbara, or who are being raised UU, like the youth among us, to stand for a moment, if you would, so we can see where we are as to this demographic. (Note especially elder Isabel Weston, who comes from a long line of Unitarians in Baltimore!)

You may be seated, but let me ask you, my "homebred" brothers and sisters, a rhetorical question that you can answer later: Do we really understand our identity and heritage as Unitarian Universalists? And is that identity clear and strong enough to counteract the fierce pressures of this materialist culture to convince us of our inherent inadequacy? I half joke that I had to go to seminary at age 33 to get an understanding of my own religion.

There's usually not a lot outside of oneself for a UU young person to hold onto, religiously. Despite my pride and awareness now, after high school I spent my 20s very much adrift, with little or no UU mooring to help me. It was a huge and painful contrast to my high school career within the UU youth community.

Adults seem to understand, more or less, that Unitarian Universalism is a religion continually striving to reach mutual agreement with the gods of ambiguity. Holding ethical and spiritual principles but no dogma, we don't just allow free religious thought, we require it at a level beyond most, if not all other religions. But this makes it hard indeed for young people to comprehend the process of spiritual maturation. Hard, but not impossible. They just need some help from caring, centered adults.

They don’t always know how to ask for such help, which is why the careful design and implementation of a congregation’s youth ministry is so critical. But they will respond well to the right adult mentors who bring good hearts, clear boundaries and a spirit of fun with them as they model how to be on the journey.

Sometimes, however, I wonder if this is asking for a lot. As much as I've been with and learned from youth, and as much as I believe in their inherent worth and dignity, I need to be reminded that there are those adults who, for whatever reasons, view teenagers as a lumped together category of alien beings, unworthy of loving attention or cultivation.

Here’s a real life quote, volunteered in a courtroom hearing by the neighbor of a friend of mine. "Kids basically leave the human race at about age 11 and don't return until they're 18." This alleged truism was put forth as a reason to reject permits for a new learning community of adolescents in the speaker’s neighborhood. The narrow-minded sentiment didn’t carry the day, happily, but I have to wonder: Is one such flagrantly negative bias against youth indicative of other, more subtle inclinations to deny teenagers their wholeness as human beings?

The intentionally provocative title of this sermon, Do Youth Have Souls?, suggests a comparison of certain harsh attitudes about youth with other biases that once declared some portions of our species as non-human. In most religious beliefs of the colonies and early U.S., for instance, neither the indigenous people of this land nor the African slaves imported here had "souls" and therefore couldn’t be saved by the Christians who quickly began to control this continent. This elitist theology allowed the invaders and captors to classify certain other groups as non-human and treat them accordingly, as it suited their goals, mostly of conquest.

Now, I admit it's quite a leap to consider unjustly maligned youth of today in the same category as vicious racism, but when we encounter real people expounding in public about kids leaving the human race at age 11, we're observing at least parallel attitudes of overt discrimination and ageism. Are youth less than human because they are less educated, less experienced, or less "mature" than most adults? Do they somehow deserve less affirmation and love than older–or younger–people? Is ageism a valid concern? Ask the youth in your circles about their experiences with age discrimination.

Whether or not the members of any particular group have souls worth saving may not be the way religious liberals today would frame the debate. But it is, I would say, a debate about value of human beings, and we Unitarian Universalists do not equivocate about value, at least on paper.

The first of our Principles declares for "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." It doesn't say, "…the inherent worth and dignity of every person over age 18." But is this just lip service? What happens when all the good energy and commitment a church puts into its younger Religious Education program culminates in the youth group years? Unfortunately, too often the changing needs of older youth are not incorporated well into a church community, and they drift off, fade away, evaporate from view.

Meanwhile, many church adults might be comfortable with this disappearance of youth, because things just get along easier without the complications that often seem to arise when youth are in the mix. And I will validate this observation: Yes, an active and successful youth ministry will indeed probably inspire some complications here and there, perhaps even upsetting various tender balances in the congregational life (and furniture).

So, if the youth program is unsuccessful and inactive, there will be fewer complications, but in those scenarios, it’s funny how most adults don’t really seem to miss the presence of youth, except maybe when they aren’t available to baby-sit. However, one has to suspect that those adults may not really even know what all they’re missing. How many of you adults out there have ever seen what you knew to be a strong and thriving youth ministry program, here or in any congregation? If you have, I invite you to reflect on the qualities that made it strong, and let me or Mandy [Jacobson, youth ministry coordinator] know what you know.

It’s not an easy ministry to sustain, partially because so few UU adults seem either eager or equipped to get involved. But I am not convinced it has to be that way.

A liberal expert on fundamentalism, Martin Marty, has suggested that the rise in religious fundamentalism is not so much because those churches have had great success converting adults from other backgrounds. What they are doing to increase their numbers, he says, is what most other religions are not doing: they are retaining their young people.

I have a sense of how they do it: with passion and intention, which, in the case of fundamentalists, is grounded in dubious theology. But the passion and intention parts can be translated into our setting and our philosophy! Successful UU youth ministry also involves passion and intention, but not just that of a minister or a couple of isolated advisors. Making a real place for our youth in the church community will involve the passion and intention of a significant portion of our adult community and it will, in turn, benefit the whole community. It needn’t take a lot of time from a lot of people, but it does require an alert awareness by most of us.

Barbara and I have a very simple vision for youth ministry. It is that senior high graduates of our RE program do so with the ability and inclination to call themselves active Unitarian Universalists. That's it: When seniors graduate from our RE program they will identify themselves as active UUs.

Sounds easy enough, but many churches fail to support their youth to this end, and the youth themselves sometimes give up too easily. All too often, they leave the group well before leaving high school, frequently because they see nothing in the program to offer them sufficient challenge anymore, and younger energy may dominate the group. Without much else connecting them to the church, when they do graduate they certainly won’t feel a part of it at all. They might still identify themselves as UUs, but often with a kind of half-hearted shrug, as though, since they're not anything else, that'll have to do.

Graduating as an active UU is about a lot more than remembering a few unusual things that happened when they were younger, or laughing about memories from an occasional district conference. There has to be an intentional effort made by the church and the youth to actively engage in the pursuit of emerging religious identity.

 With that in mind, imagine, if you will, a thriving youth ministry program here at Paint Branch. What does it look like?

Here's some of what I see in a vision of youth ministry. (I invite you to also add your own ideas to this list, and am happy to notice that some aspects mentioned below are already in place or growing.)

• I see a Senior High group that knows how to activate its older youth, who respond well to customized challenges offered by adult mentors who know and appreciate them.

• I see a combination of lively youth sub-culture (the youth group experience), blended with opportunities for meaningful integration into the life of the congregation.

• I see youth group gatherings that are powerfully safe places to share the rich unfolding of young lives.

• I see many adults in the church community who know the youth group members by name and like to do things with them.

• I see a strong Youth-Adult Committee (YAC) of dedicated adults who take turns helping youth leaders and their advisors conduct a full range of programming.

• I see our youth group growing good leaders for other events and settings, both within Paint Branch and UUism and beyond.

• I see an annual Youth Sunday Service that inspires and teaches the full congregation–and does not just introduce the otherwise invisible youth group members–because a number of them have already been participating in services throughout the year.

• I see a customized form of pledging that allows youth to be and feel like contributing members.

• I see young people making sincere and well thought out comments about their spiritual growth.

• I see the youth group taking on significant service projects, within the church and in the wider community.

• I see older youth helping younger ones feel connected, passing on the reins of the group to them.

• I see an effective way of honoring high school graduates, connecting them with the UU young adult realm that is thriving now.


And what might happen here as a result of this kind of a ministry? Here are just a few possibilities:

• More lively and fun multi-generational events will occur, on the church calendar and spontaneously. (Our Stewardship Event last night was a great example of this.)

• Younger kids will look up to the youth and look forward to their turn in the group, while adults will notice a spike in their own energy levels.

• Graduates of our RE program who have moved away will eagerly return to catch up with each other and add perspective to an annual Paint Branch Young Adult "Homecoming" Sunday between Christmas and New Years, say.

• Older young adults will settle in to lives of their own and become active members of UU churches wherever they are, talking about the positive experiences they had growing up at Paint Branch.

Let these ideas percolate in you and inspire other possibilities! Whatever happens to the youth ministry here will be a result of initiatives taken by visionary church members and staff. There's never been a better time to build a wider congregational base for this very worthy purpose. (If you have ideas or want to assist, please contact me or Mandy.) At stake is the liberal religious grounding of new generations and the strengthening of this church community. Together, our worthy souls of all ages will nurture each other.

In closing, I invite you to imagine a very special and historic occasion when another kind of institutional step was taken: in 1954, Unitarian and Universalist youth had just formally merged their separate organizations to create LRY: Liberal Religious Youth, and now held their first Continental Convention. This was seven years ahead of the merger of the two parent denominations, in 1961. You might say that the youth led the way.

Imagine the mood at this conference, almost 50 years ago now. Imagine a large crowd of young people, standing together in solidarity, intent on strengthening the institution of liberal religion and its connections to youth.

Imagine that a goodly number of those young people went into the ministry, because they did. And by now, 2001, most have retired, after dedicating their life’s work to the advancement of UUism. Barbara and I stand in direct line with these pioneers, some of whom were our mentors.

Imagine that when all those youth gathered at that first Con Con in 1954, they sang of accomplishment and celebration. They sang one special song, the words of which were written for the occasion by a young adult minister, Sam Wright, to the familiar tune of Finlandia. That song, #318 in our latest hymnal, became known as the LRY Hymn, and I invite you to sing it now: "We Would be One."

And as you sing these very optimistic words, feel the connection we share with those young people then, who, as they aged, passed the reigns to us, just as we will do to subsequent generations–new guardians of our living tradition. It’s a Beautiful Thing.

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