(Not So) Great Expectations

Shaun Sass
October 9th, 2009


Will today’s children, once grown, make this country a better place?

According to a recent survey conducted by Public Agenda, a New York-based opinion research firm, only 37 percent of the few thousand respondents answered in the affirmative.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t—but not for the reasons you may immediately assume. Rather than validating what a large percentage of America believes about kids today, let’s turn the tables a bit.

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you read or hear the moniker Generation X? Do adjectives like industriouspositive, and faithfulfill your gray matter? Or do lazycynical, and overindulgent take up residence there? Not only are the popular perceptions of people born after the mid-’60s as slackers, underachievers, and grunge disciples overgeneralized, but the adults who fail to hold kids to higher expectations are at fault because they help perpetuate this myth.

Youths will rise—or, in this case, fall—to whatever standard is set by adults who lead, teach, or care for them. What do we believe as youth workers? Do we really think Generation X has “nowhere to go and nothing to live for”? If we buy into our society’s perceptions of kids, we’re giving up on them and their potential.

I believe this self-fulfilling prophecy is at work in our homes, churches, and schools—perhaps more often than we may assume. Have you heard parents dismiss drunken binges as “just something kids are bound to do”? Have you known teachers to inflate grades in an effort to normalize undisciplined study habits? And have we, as youth workers, skimmed through topical Bible study guides because “kids just aren’t that deep”? I think youth workers’ expectations of kids, by and large, are far too low—and what’s worse is that many of us have trapped ourselves in these expectations.

The Cynicism Trap
What happens when we, instead of taking a fresh look at our kids and cheering them on, expect the worst from them—and then actually get mad when they do exactly what we expected! (And of course, the next time we’ll expect that they outdo themselves and continue to sink lower into the listless sea of angst, apathy, and thrift store retrowear.)

Years ago I played a game with my junior highers in which groups of six were asked to secretly select a home appliance; the rest of the group had to figure out their choice based on the group’s acting ability. Over the years the game had digressed from creative selections (food processors, humidifiers, washers, and air poppers) to the hum-drum and mundane (toasters, toasters, and toasters).

One evening following yet another underwhelming burst of improvisation from the young players, I shared with my volunteer staff this fatal conclusion: “Kids just aren’t creative anymore.” So I yanked this game from our bank of programming tools—and gave up on my kids in the process. I didn’t want to subject them to any activity that could highlight their collective lack of enthusiasm.

But I actually put my foot in the cynicism trap when I first believed that kids today aren’t creative, even before I said it: My kids were noncreative, not because something was lacking in them—it was something lacking inme. I didn’t expect creativity from them in the first place! After watching the umpteenth toaster charade, I should have simply affirmed them (“Nice toasters!”) and then asked them to play again and outdo themselves.

Perhaps many young people don’t naturally gravitate toward creativity, but with a little creativity on our part, we can help them to come through. We can safely expect more from them—not only with regard to creativity, but also when it concerns teaching spiritual truths and social skills—like respect, proper speech, leadership, and responsibility. But we must first break from the cynicism trap.

My new drama team didn’t turn out to be the dozen kids I recruited and hoped would sign on—it was a group of three freshmen girls, all either new believers or newly dedicated ones. They were young in their faith, in their relationships with boys—basically immature. When I banked on the team being bigger, I announced to the youth group that the drama team could customize its vignettes to augment my Wednesday night talks. But because the team turned out to be only three freshmen girls with no perceivable talent or experience, I backed off.

Apparently I confused maturity with talent. I reluctantly let them work on the themes—trying only to let them see the “I believe in you” remnant that hung by like a thread inside me.

But that’s all they needed: Within a month I found my youth group drawn to their drama—riveting portrayals of loneliness, abuse, and fear; lighthearted and downright gut-busting portrayals of New Age spirituality and family life. These girls shined—from the inception of their ideas to their presentation—because I had a mustard seed’s worth of faith in them. And they moved mountains in my weekly meeting. (Unfortunately for me, they were a tough act to follow!)

The Culture Trap
This relates to how much we trust God to set young people apart from the world. When we read surveys concerning kids (like the one that opened this article) and studies on youth culture, it’s no crime to wonder, “How can our kids rise above that?” But then rather than coming to terms with the question, do we downshift our youth groups so they become havens where kids merely stay out of trouble or feel accepted?

Isn’t youth group much more than simply a safe place? Do we as youth workers have low spiritual expectations of our kids? If we don’t expect God to change them into confident, humble, strong, self-controlled, holy, respectful, loving people, then what are we doing for them?

I wish I could share lots of stories of how my tougher spiritual expectations turned loose a ton of young Christians to transform their world, but I haven’t noticed those changes happening in my kids over the last few years. And yet, while composing these words, my doors have been darkened a half dozen times by former youth group kids now in college—and bristling with excitement for God and their part in his work on their campuses. It seems God was faithful (again) in germinating the seeds of spiritual expectations I helped to plant. Happily, these kids are different: They’re now embodying full-time the qualities I’d seen previously in only trace amounts. And if I hadn’t believed God would complete a good work in them, my kids may not have had the chance to reach that point.

The Ignorance Trap
Our expectations as youth workers may be too low in some areas, too high in others—or nonexistent—because we don’t really know what to expect. Youth workers are notorious for being laid-back, just hanging out with kids and relating to them, relegating firm expectations to teachers and parents. But that’s our job, too—and honing, crafting, and refining a youth ministry philosophy is part of that.

One aspect of my youth ministry philosophy that’s helped me develop realistic expectations of my students is recognizing each of them as existing in one of three states: natural (unregenerated), spiritual (regenerated and living a godly life), or carnal (regenerated and living in the flesh). With caution I attempt to surmise where each young person is, and my expectations follow accordingly. It’d be foolish, for example, for me to expect a “natural” teen to have the fruit of the Spirit—I can’t expect much from them, spiritually speaking, except perhaps an honest search for God. From the “spiritual” teen, on the other hand, I expect righteousness—though my approach and timeline greatly depends on the individual. Simply painting a philosophy of ministry in those three brush strokes has greatly helped me raise expectations I have for my kids—while at the same time keeping me from becoming disillusioned.

Kids are constantly bombarded with this message: Believe in yourself. But they have no reason to believe in themselves—unless they’re reminded of the resources the Holy Spirit offers. Kids must first believe in Jesus. And if we as youth workers are to have higher expectations for our kids, we must do the same.

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.