A preacher was once preaching a Hell-fire and damnation kind of sermon on the evils of alcohol. After the service one of his members, a 78 year old matriarch of the church, made her way to him and said, “Preacher, you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”
I risk “meddling” in this message today, but we have discussed it amongst ourselves and we all feel that it is important to shine some light on an ever-increasing issue.
Our young people are under ever more mounting pressure to perform—to succeed—to win. Not one week into the new school year and you could hear it coming from some of our own youth. The expectations are fairly enormous—especially in the neighborhoods in which many of us live. I listened to one teenager recently (in a different church) talk about the whole “Advanced Placement”/College Prep classes. She said at her school, there is mostly no middle ground. “Average” doesn’t exist. You either excel or you are lumped together with “the losers” (her words). She said there were frequently comments from faculty that reinforced this notion.
The result for many of these young people in our classrooms is depression. “How can I keep up? When will I ever be deemed worthy? How many “A’s” does it take? What if I don’t get accepted to the college of my choice? What if I’m a loser, too?” It shouldn’t take a lot of imagination to see where such thinking might lead.
It would be easy enough to pile on here with how we treat our young athletes. If you aren’t “travel team” then you might as well stay at home. You hear more and more about “bullying” in schools. What if the worst offenders aren’t other students, but rather amateur coaches who have too much ego for their own good and a need to live vicariously through these young athletes? “You say you want to attend your church’s youth retreat? Go ahead, but you’ll lose your starting spot in the lineup . . .” Call that anything you want, but it sounds suspiciously like bullying to me.
Now let’s be clear—there is nothing at all wrong with wishing to excel. I wish every Christian Believer had a healthy dose of that desire within. We should all strive to be all that God made us to be. I’ve tried to play tennis for most of my life. I am a decent player and I play most every week with someone who is better than I am—I’ve been trying to beat him for 20 years and can count on one hand the number of times it has happened. But I keep after it because I will become a better player by playing—and even losing—to him. I’ll admit it—I’m pretty competitive.
But there is a difference—my sense of value, my self-worth, is not defined by my performance. My wanting to be a better player is internally driven. But my sense of self is a gift from God. I don’t have to prove my worth to anybody. My value as a human being is a given because I am a child of God and profoundly loved.
I suggest that is the story too many of our young ones aren’t hearing.
For those of you who are currently parents of these young ones, this is not a criticism aimed at you. I dare say it might be that the church has let you down. So how can we help you? We share your desire to help your young ones be the best they can be. But there seems to be no end of the number of people in their lives who want that for them. Maybe the church needs to be that place that can celebrate their victories—in the classroom or on the field—but also the place they can come when they fail. The place where they can be reminded that they are loved and that they are not losers. God doesn’t create losers.
A reminder to us all: it isn’t easy being a child or a teenager. They need all the love and support we can muster.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.