It all started when I heard a lecture recently by Linda Wagener, an expert on adolescent psychology whom I had asked to give a talk here at Fuller Seminary about youth culture. The very idea of a "youth culture," she told us, is a recent phenomenon. To a degree unknown in the past, kids have their own values, their own sense of group identity, their own ways of dressing and speaking.
This makes life difficult for many families, because parents often do not know how to communicate with their own kids. And the opportunities for communication are less frequent than in the past. In many homes, for example, the family dinner--once a daily ritual--is a rare occurrence. We eat on the run, and talk to each other only in passing. That means that we adults often don't have a good sense of how to understand teenagers. And this is where my behavior at McDonald's comes in.
There is an airport McDonald's that I stop at frequently that always seems to put me in a bad mood. The young people who work there are constantly talking to each other, and it is hard to get their attention. When it is my turn to order, the young people who serve me often turn sullen. They seldom look me in the eye, and they typically mumble when they speak. I respond in an irritated manner, often shaking my head in disgust or raising my eyebrows to communicate my displeasure to whomever is standing in line next to me.
Wagener, the adolescent psychologist, is deeply concerned about the ways adults relate to teenagers, and the way that churches minister to young people. The heart of the problem, she says, is "age segregation." Many congregations seem dedicated to keeping young people out of sight. The little kids, for example, are encouraged to leave the "big people's" worship services early on for "children's church." And when they get old enough, they are expected to show up at different times than their parents for their own "youth worship."
Wagener does not have easy answers, but she is firmly convinced that we need to promote direct interaction, both in families and in congregations, between generations. By keeping young people out of sight of adults in church, we are denying our unity as Christians.
In her talk, Wagener offered suggestions on how to begin to change our patterns. Older and younger generations can find occasions to worship together. We can get young and old to talk together: Big Brother/Sister programs, mentoring, tutoring-maybe even occasions where kids can teach the older folks how to use computers and video games!
We older folks have to stop acting as if we find youth behavior irritating, she said. Kids may act like they don't want interaction with us, but the truth is, they need to be assured the older generation does take them seriously and cares about them. We can show this in very simple ways, she said. It can happen just by giving a teenager direct eye contact and thanking them for something.
From now on it is going to be different for me at the airport McDonald's. When I stand in line I am going to silently pray for the kids behind the counter, asking the Lord also to give guidance to all of us who care about ministry to young people. And when I get to the head of the line I am going to ask the person who serves me how he or she is doing, trying my best to make friendly eye contact. And when I receive my Quarter Pounder with Cheese I am going to say "thank you."