When I was a teenager navigating life and youth group, I had multiple volunteer youth workers tell me one of two things: Either I was currently living the best time of my life (so I needed to enjoy it), or I would very soon be living the best time of my life (once I got to college).
Either way, both messages were clear: Enjoy the present; enjoy your youth; the future is bleak.
I struggled with these messages because life as a teenager was already bleak. In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t. I had a home, loving parents, a roof over my head, and a meal at virtually any time of day I wanted. I lacked nothing, essentially.
But hindsight is 20/20, and I was a teenager. I had teenage crises. Conflicts with friends were disasters. Breakups were apocalyptic. Acne was life-stopping. Fashion, trends, and fitting in were all important. Life was hectic, hormones raged, emotions were fragile. And that’s from a white, middle-class perspective.
I never dealt with poverty; with divorce; with addiction; with teen pregnancy; with bullying (cyber or otherwise); with death or separation from family members; with hunger; with learning disabilities; with psychological disorders; with racial biases; with sexual orientation questions; or with the numerous other actually tragic circumstances that some teenagers unfortunately encounter.
As an adult pushing toward my thirties, I realize now that those volunteer youth workers had no idea what they were talking about. They were still kids themselves, who hadn’t turned thirty yet, who had just emerged from the last vestiges of adolescent co-dependence into adulthood, and who had become disillusioned by the real world of bill-paying and working and providing for themselves. But I didn’t know that as a teenager, so their statements carried supreme wisdom accompanied by ultimate doom and hopelessness.
Many youth workers are young, fresh out of college, and still figuring out the nuances of adult life. Among ourselves, we know that. But our teens do not. They see us as authority figures on life and faith. They have no idea what personal and professional disappointments or failures or setbacks we’ve faced. Let’s not project our own shortcomings and insecurities onto our teenagers. No matter what has been true for us, shouldn’t we always—if for no other reason than because of the faith we profess and teach—communicate a message of hope to the teenagers we lead?