The Gift of Christmas Complexity for Teens

I drove past my local city hall this week and noticed that someone had placed a nativity scene on the front lawn. There they stood, in plastic and primary colors—mother, father, child, animals, and wise men surrounded by a little white picket fence to keep the scene neat and tidy. This seems to be the season for carefully crafted images of holy family tranquility and serenity. Perhaps there's something we just can't resist about a strong, silent Joseph standing guard over his family, a Mary with face aglow as she gazes down at the manger, and a cuddly baby Jesus who, if we are to believe the hymn, doesn't so much as cry as he looks up with innocence at his mother.

In contrast, many of the youth in our churches come from family lives that are much more complex and untidy. The teenagers in the youth ministry I serve live in blended families, divorced families, single parent families, and adoptive families. Some have gay parents, unemployed parents, Christian parents, non-Christian parents, or parents living with depression. Their home lives are fraught with worries over the fragile economy, teen sex and drug use, and just simply finding time in their busy schedules to eat even one meal together a week as a family. I wonder then what message we send to teens when we lift up such a picturesque image of the holy family.

Imagine that instead of offering our young people a sanitized version of the first Christmas, we invited them to look more deeply at what is really happening in those gospel stories of the birth narratives. By the teen years, youth are certainly ready to engage these stories beyond simply viewing them as historical reports. Developmentally, youth are able to engage these narratives as intentionally crafted theological statements by the gospel writers revealing how their 1st-century communities understood God's presence to be incarnated in the real world. When we look at these stories through the lens of culture and literature, we find there something quite different from the stuff of church Christmas pageants.

In fact, what we find in scripture might surprise our youth, for these stories come from the underbelly of 1st-century culture. They are stories of an unmarried peasant couple, threatened by scandal and charged with taking a long, tiresome, and potentially dangerous journey even while the mother is at her most vulnerable. They are stories of a family whose very lives are threatened by the violent power of the Roman Empire and of Herod, the puppet king of Israel. They are stories of the messiness of a birth taking place in the presence of farm animals. They are stories of God's messengers coming, not to the mighty kings, but to unclean shepherds living in the fields, persons with almost no status in that culture. They are stories of God coming into the world through a powerless girl and a helpless infant. These are stories that bear little resemblance to the images we see this season on the greeting cards that fill our mailboxes, but they are stories with the potential to speak to teens of a God whose love and power are far more radical and amazing than we often are willing to admit.

This Advent and Christmas season, what a gift it could be as families and as churches to offer our young people the opportunity to explore the nativity stories in all their complexities—to help teens to see how the struggles of the holy family are still to be found in our own lives today. Here are just a few suggestions to begin a journey more deeply into these birth narratives with youth:

  • Discuss with teens the radical theological approach the gospel writers took in crafting stories that present God working in the world not through coercive power but through meekness, vulnerability, and love.
  • Invite youth to wonder what it means that Christianity repeatedly tells its story with characters who come from the bottom of the culture: peasant girls, outcast shepherds, and powerless babies.
  • Seek out opportunities with your teens to support a local outreach or faith-based organization that serves homeless persons and reflect on how God works through those whom many in our culture might consider expendable.
  • As a way to put a human face on a complex social issue, join your youth in volunteering with an agency that seeks to support unwed teen mothers.
  • Following your Christmas celebrations, take time with your teens to talk about the families in your community, like the one in the nativity story, who are struggling with poverty and proper care for their children. Make a plan together to donate new items or items you no longer need to Goodwill or similar organization.
  • Challenge teens to retell the nativity story as it might happen today, encouraging them to avoid the sentimentality that often weakens retellings of the biblical narratives and instead focus on the harsh realities of the struggle of being a family in today's world.
  • Create together an artistic rendering of the nativity story using only discarded and recycled materials, perhaps even what you find in the trash can. Talk together about how this may in fact be a more appropriate way than our traditional nativity scenes to symbolize the subversive nature of God's power working through those who the world might consider "throw-away" people.

Not too many days from now, many of us will put away our nativity scenes, carefully wrapping them in tissue paper to keep them safe and secure for another year. For our youth, life is not so neat and tidy. Helping them to see that God is present in the messiness of families and that our tradition speaks of a God who can work through us even in that messiness may be the best gift we can offer to our teens this Christmas season.

Rethinking Youth Ministry is a new weekly column by Brian Kirk at the Mainline Protestant Portal at Patheos.