Kids Need Friends
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” -Henri NouwenFew things are more painful than the discovery that those who you thought were your friends were actually just trying to sell you something? Few things are more isolating than the discovery that a "friend" was actually just out to fix you or change you.
This is a real problem in youth ministry (one I tend to think Andrew Root has addressed sufficiently in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry). The relationships between adolescents and adults are largely manipulative ones, even if only by perception. Even when it's innocent, we often have another agenda, a goal on the other side of the relationship. We're in the habit, even if we're out to advocate for their dignity, of seeing kids as a problem to be fixed. This, I believe, contributes to adolescent isolation and what Chap Clarke (in Hurt) and Amy Jacober (in The Adolescent Journey) refer to as "systemic abandonment." Those who are thought to care for kids as persons are revealed to have an agenda for them, to care more about changing them or influencing them. Before we are willing to enter into relationship with them, before we'll tolerate "not knowing, not curing, not healing" and simply sit with them in their situation, we come offering a solution.
In schools we offer an educational philosophy or a behavioral plan, in bureaucracy we offer laws to protect them from themselves, in churches we offer "discipleship" and our sagely influence. Even when we try to be their advocate, we often can't help but see them as a student to be taught, a demographic to appeal to (to sell them something in one sense or another), or a potential convert or confirmand.
Kids don't need any more solutions before they need friends, adults who are friends.
In the book of Job, there is this obvious pain. Job goes through inconceivable suffering, losing all his possessions and all his children. The darkness of his situation is simply gut-wrenching. But I've always thought that the story reaches a whole different level in the response that Job receives from his friends. When all has been lost, when the threat of God-forsakenness reaches it's pinnacle in this man's life, his friends come to him not with comfort and acceptance but with explanations and advice. They should get credit for sitting with him in silence for seven days first, right? I guess so, but I'm suspicious that this expression of friendship is just a step on the way to manipulation. I've always suspected that they were just trying to "earn the right" to get to their real point... to get the chance to fix Job, and I've always felt this to be just an added layer on Job's suffering, and a profound one. In his friends' reception of him, Job is further isolated. The ones who are supposed to care about him, the ones who did care about him, are just out to fix him, teach him, and explain things to him. They cannot tolerate Job's suffering, so they are revealed as frauds instead of friends. They can't sit with him any longer in his situation, they can only resort to explanations and advice... they resort to another agenda. And this, for me, makes the already intolerable suffering of Job even more intolerable, for it includes the loss of friendship and is experienced without real friendship.
In their situations, be them of joy or of suffering, what adolescents need is not more solutions before friendships. All people, including kids, find themselves in the dark, threatened by the reality and anxiety of death in all its disguises. What we need in our lives are people who will meet us there with love and acceptance. Kids need adults and mentors who are willing to tolerate their situation, to "share [their] pain and touch [their] wounds with a warm and tender hand."
They need friendships, not buddies. For someone to manipulate themselves to be their "pal" is also manipulative. For someone to revert to immaturity in order to "hang out" with kids doesn't help either. They need people to share their own person, not some diluted form thereof. They need real adults who are real friends.
For youth ministry this does not mean that we abandon influence altogether. It doesn't mean that we don't give advice and operate as mentors. The problem arises when influence becomes the goal and when agendas control the relationship. And it doesn't mean that a Youth Pastor is supposed to be best friends with all the kids in their group. But it does mean that a primary role for them is to create spaces in which kids can experience real friendships and encounter adults as friends, not just condescending moral and practical influences. Kids need acceptance before they need another standard to achieve. Kids need friends.
"Every act of help is preceded by our fellowship in common, and every act of caring has its origins in Christian friendship." -Jurgen Moltmann