In his famous wartime speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told an anxious nation that fear is the only thing we really have to fear. Those words, spoken by an iconic man at an iconic time to an iconic generation, seem like crucial great-grandfatherly advice right now. Fear, in its many disguises, is the chief enemy of youth ministry today.
I was reminded of this during the brouhaha that was unleashed after President Obama decided to Webcast a first-day-of-school message to American schoolchildren in early September. When I heard that some schools were caving to parent pressure, deciding not to show the address because of fears about Obama’s intentions, I was incredulous. When I discovered my daughters’ own school had made the decision to not participate, I hit the roof.
So here’s a little inappropriate self-disclosure: I voted for John McCain in the 2008 election because I thought he was the best-qualified candidate. That said, I think it’s terrible—and telling—that so many parents and schools across the country labeled as “propaganda” a speech by the President of the United States that was designed to challenge kids to “work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.”
In 1991 the first President Bush gave a similar address to schoolchildren, urging them to “study hard, avoid drugs, and turn in troublemakers.” But no protests erupted in 1991… Hmm. I think that has more to do with a sea-change in our culture than with partisan suspicion or even racism.
News reports about Obama’s speech pinpointed his “perceived motive” as the flashpoint for the uproar that quickly engulfed it. “Perceived motive” is another way of saying people were gripped by fear about his ultimate intentions, and that fear was vented through suspicion, anger, and even paranoia. What a perfect parable for our time.
In the name of fairness and protection and advocacy, we’re teaching kids to fear ideas and to fear risk and to fear the unknown—we fundamentally treat our young people as non-critical sponges who are easily mesmerized by fast-talking salesmen. Our sweeping fears on behalf of our kids, rarely warranted, communicate a fundamental disrespect for them. Can you imagine Jesus calling up a school principal, urging him to not show the Obama speech? I can’t conceive it. Instead, he challenged his followers to immerse themselves in the world’s flea-market of competing beliefs for the purpose of planting a flag for the Kingdom of God in every dark corner of the world. That mission became, essentially, the life work of the Apostle Paul, the guy who famously and playfully tweaked the idol-worshiping hoo-ha’s on Mars Hill.
The other day I was talking with LeaderTreks (leadertreks.org) founder Doug Franklin, an expert on student leadership development, about our culture of fear. I thought Doug pinpointed its primary impact on teenagers so perfectly: “Kids can’t make a decision to save their life.”
On one of his many leadership development trips, Doug watched as a group of senior highers spread out through a Costa Rican grocery store to buy food supplies for their two-week trek into the jungle. He noticed a guy standing in front of the only two pasta varieties sold in the store—unable to choose, he pleaded with Doug for help. On another trip to the grocery store, Doug had to literally restrain one of his adult leaders from telling kids they’d forgotten to buy butter. Doug’s philosophy: Poor decisions are the perfect teachers for great decision-making.
In the past five years or so, Doug says, this same decision-paralysis scenario has been lived out over and over in our culture—we handicap our kids by deciding for them, rescuing them, jumping in to fix their mistakes, and generally treating failure as the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. He’s seen it all—adults filling out kids’ LeaderTreks application, kids obviously and repetitively lying to cover the failure of a peer, parents literally packing suitcases for 17-year-olds.
The handicap is real: If kids can’t decide which pasta to pick, how can we expect them to decide anything for themselves? Angie, longtime publisher at LeaderTreks and Doug’s wife, told me: “If we don’t make students owners of the church, why would they not walk away?” Why indeed. Owners are responsible for what they own; consumers, on the other hand, consume and then move on.
Jesus was clear: “Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27).