“Where would you turn for help if you, or someone you know, was a victim of teen dating violence?” the moderator asked an adult and a teen who were standing on opposite sides of a table, waiting to ring a bell when they had an answer. The teen struck the bell and shouted, “your best friend!” The moderator hit a button that made a buzz signifying a “wrong” answer. “Telling your best friend,” the moderator commented, “might result in gossip. Your friend may also be friends with the perpetrator. Your best friend may also not know how to help.”
We were at a workshop held at my church that was being presented by Long Island Against Domestic Violence on “Teen Dating Violence Awareness”. The game we were playing had two parallel rows of folding chairs about four feet apart and facing each other. One row was for adults, and the other for teens. A team of one teen and one adult took turns at the table as questions pertaining to teen dating violence were read. Every team got a turn.
The teens were asked to offer other possible “right” answers. They mentioned telling a school advisor, security guard, teacher, school nurse, librarian, police officer, parent, and others. Then the adults added other possibilities of where to turn for help.
Not one teen or adult said they would turn to the church or clergy for help. Some workshop leaders took the adults into one room for debriefing and others took the teens into another room. I mentioned that no teen or adult saw the church or clergy as a source of hope and help in such a troubling situation; even though our church and pastor were sponsoring the event. I did not take it personally. I was simply aghast that the teens did not consider the church or the clergy, in general, as where to turn for help.
Teens know that they are often feared, held in disdain, mistrusted, abused and ignored. And then we know that effects how they treat themselves and each other. They know that a lawn is often more important than a teenage life.
Many churches are not reaching teens, and the reasons are not necessarily about boring music, empty rituals, and a theology that casts some people aside because of their ethnicity, class and orientation. Teens feel that at church they may be judged, lectured, preached at and offered morality instruction more so than listened to and loved. At the Teen Dating Violence workshop, we learned much from the teens; some terrifying, some sad, and some wonderfully hopeful! The healing has begun.
And now, I want to hear about the failures, successes, trials, tribulations, curses and blessings of other churches engaged in creating a safe and meaningful space of grace for the teenagers who shall soon inherit the earth, and the full or empty churches upon it.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com