Last summer, Jan Hoffman wrote a piece for The New York Times on the disparity in quality of life between the “cool kids” in middle and early high school, and the regular joes and misfits who idolized them. “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” cited a study which reported on a group of American kids from age 13 all the way to age 23. Among other things, the study discovered that the kids who enjoyed popularity and social ease in their early teens were significantly more troubled and at risk by the time they reached early adulthood than their less admired peers.
An excerpt from Hoffman:
A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.
As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.
Why is this? Why do the “cool kids” of middle and high school struggle once they leave their social circles? The sociologists responsible for the study suggest and intriguing answer: the superfluousness of popularity prevents these teens from developing actual relational skills and inner maturity. They’re so busy trying to be liked that they don’t cultivate a self-identity or the ability to be at ease by themselves. By 17 or 18, the relationships and cliques that made them admired have evaporated, and, no longer able to define themselves in that way, they can only persist in the “pseudomature” behaviors that eventually become habit.
Shortly after reading Hoffman’s piece, I told my wife Emily about it. She immediately agreed with the study’s findings and said that describes what she has seen as well (Emily is a senior at university and keeps up with several of her high school classmates via social media). Several of Emily’s popular classmates in middle and high school have children out of wedlock. Others have struggled with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide. Of course, those in Emily’s own social circles don’t lead perfect lives, and have their own struggles as well; but she has noticed that, like the study demonstrates, those friends who had lower profiles in school have tended to fare much better in life outside school.
The pressure in adolescence to be liked is often all-consuming. I’m constantly reminded of Jake Halpern’s “fame survey,” part of the research he did for his 2007 book Fame Junkies. Halpern polled over 600 American teenagers with questions that measured desire for popularity and fame against other life ambitions. The results of Halpern’s study are sobering: Teenage girls were more likely to choose fame over intelligence and both boys and girls said they would rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than a university president, a Senator, or a major CEO. Of course, it doesn’t come as a shock that teenagers want to be admired. But if Hoffman’s study is reliable, then we have a better idea of how crippling that desire can become for many teens.
My thoughts about this have intersected with my beginning professor James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. Smith’s thesis is that Christian education has often focused on transmitting the right information to students so as to form a Christian “worldview,” or a matrix of Christian doctrine and philosophy through which students can filter their thinking about the world. The problem, according to Dr. Smith, is that an overriding emphasis on forming a Christian worldview is actually built on a non-Christian assumption, namely, that humans are primarily cognitive and rational beings as opposed to primarily desiring and emotive ones. Rather than focus on instilling the right kinds of information in Christian students, Dr. Smith says that Christian education should be concerned with the kind of people that emerge from it, concerned with having the right desires and emotions.
I’ll say more about the book as I go further into it. But one thing about Dr. Smith’s thesis that stands out immediately to me is the explanation it offers for why youth ministry is often so ineffective for evangelical churches. Why do youth ministers often struggle to get the students in their care to understand how the promises of the Gospel override the fleeting pleasures of fame and popularity in this world? How is it that students with impressive knowledge of the Bible and even faithful attendance to the church’s programming are nonetheless more deeply moved at the images and (to borrow Dr. Smith’s terminology) liturgy of popular culture than they are at Christian life and discipleship?
Perhaps one answer is that the desire to be loved by strangers is ultimately stronger than the desire to get the answers right at Bible study group. In fact, the loudness and busyness of most evangelical student ministry programming might actually be reinforcing the very worldly liturgies its trying to contest. Listen to what Hoffman writes near the end of her piece:
Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.
“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”
In other words, it is the formation of quiet virtues and the enjoyment of personal (not public) pleasures that create a mature person. How many of our Christian student ministries are built on personal formation rather than membership in a Christianized clique? It seems to me then that trying to make Christianity “cool” and “relevant” is merely playing into the very desires that wage war against teens’ souls.
Perhaps our evangelical student ministries can reach more deeply in the souls of students by promising more than the right answers with the right people. Perhaps the formation of teens in our churches should start out by reassuring them that God made everybody weird and that is OK. Perhaps rather than promising a great summer retreat or a fun filled calendar of programming, youth ministers could promise real, flesh and blood relationship and a retreat from the cruel meritocracy of pop culture. The Gospel doesn’t tell us we’re liked (actually, the opposite), but it does tell us we’re loved.