How do we protect our teens? That's the question some were asking themselves several months ago when MTV premiered a new series, "Skins," based on a British TV drama about teen angst, sex, and drug use. Some viewers were alarmed to think that the show might be accurately depicting the out-of-control lifestyle of American teens. Others worried that the debauchery of the storylines would influence young viewers to emulate the characters' behaviors. Before the first episode even aired, parent and Christian groups were condemning the series for its blatant sexuality and occasional nudity.
To be certain, the show seemed designed to shock adults and titillate teens but this is the business MTV has been in since its inception. A few years ago some Christian group somewhere was undoubtedly condemning "Beavis and Butthead" or "Undressed" or "The Real World" or any other of a number of MTV programs designed to tap into teens' desires to push boundaries and engage in adult behaviors without the accompanying responsibilities of adulthood. Yet there seemed to be a consensus that "Skins" was far worse than anything that had come before with its particular potential to encourage teen viewers to engage in risky behaviors. Then a funny thing happened. Though the premiere episode drew 3 million viewers, as the season wore on teens became less interested and viewership dropped by more than half. At this point, it's not even certain that MTV will order up a second season.
In the end, one wonders if all the furor over "Skins" was worth the effort. To be certain, if a new season of the program isn't picked up, something else will come along to raise the alarms of those who feel we must protect adolescents from every passing negative influence in popular culture, whether it be the music of Britney Spears or the coarse humor of "Family Guy" or the occult themes of the Twilight book series. All of which makes me wonder: Why do we so often focus on the hot button issues of the moment, particularly those that spotlight sex and controversy but which ultimately are of little importance and have such a short shelf life? In other words, given all the challenges of our world today, is MTV's "Skins" the worst problem facing our teens?
Perhaps it is easier to focus on these hot button issues than it is to engage teens around the real problems in the world. Recently I attended a lecture by Jesus scholar Marcus Borg in which he suggested that if there were a devil, he'd love to see the Church preoccupy itself with trivial issues while the rest of the world "goes to hell." Borg was speaking slightly tongue-in-cheek but his meaning was clear: far too often in the Church we turn our attention to things that have nothing to do with the core values of the gospel.
Could the same be said about those of us who work with teens? Though it might be easier to spend our time engaging youth on topics related to the dangers of secular music or which movies they should avoid at the theater or how to escape the epidemic of sexting that is apparently sweeping the nation, don't we run the risk of shortchanging them when it comes to the real concerns of Jesus' own ministry: poverty, hunger, intolerance, violence, injustice?
In their text, Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old, authors Joseph and Claudia Allen argue that "we have turned the teen years into a supersized extension of childhood" where very little is expected of youth and very little of what they do is of consequence. We allow teens to preoccupy themselves with trivial matters and pointless distractions while they wait to grow up. So, while the world around them may be "going to hell" with wars and systemic injustices and growing numbers of persons going hungry and living in poverty, we challenge our teens with little more than keeping up their grades and deciding which video game to buy next.
What's the result of allowing adolescents to grow up inside a bubble where they can't see past their own immediate needs or the myriad of distractions offered to them daily by popular culture? According to the latest statistics, almost 50 percent of youth ages 18-24 live at home and a majority of youth still receives financial support from their parents even after graduating college. Call it the "failure to launch" syndrome, a condition in which many young people reach their mid-20s with no direction, no sense of passion about career or vocation, and few skills for living independently. In short, many youth take forever to grow up because so little is expected of them.
But the Church could be a partner with parents and teachers in reversing this trend for teens. Rather than spending our precious time with youth waging a war against the evils of popular culture, we could invite them to participate in the adult work of addressing the real injustices of our world. Rather than focusing their attention on "teen issues" we could challenge our youth to join us in the Church's mission of speaking out against injustice and meeting the needs of those who hunger, thirst, and cry out for help. Instead of sequestering our teens away in church youth rooms full of entertainment-based distractions, we could challenge our congregations to invite youth to develop their gifts for leadership alongside adults in the Church. Instead of talking with teens about the evils of "Skins" and Lady Gaga, we could be inspiring them with the lives of Dietrich Bonheoffer and Mother Teresa.Instead of sending the message to youth that the Christian faith is primarily about morality and purity of thought, we could turn our focus to sharing with them the radical gospel values of forgiveness, charity, nonviolence, mercy, and God's unconditional love.
One wonders what the Church might look like in twenty years if today's teens were invited to step out of their adolescent bubbles and engage in the very same ministry that Jesus gave his life to as a young person. Do we dare find out what might happen if our youth become the Church of Today? As the old Irish Proverb warns: Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth.