Are Teenagers Human?

I hope this question strikes you as odd, especially if you’re working with young people in the church. At first, the answer may seem simple: Yes! Of course, yes! But as articles are released (as they seem to be every 5 years or so) examining the “teenage brain” as though the “teenager” constitutes a different species, as books are published flaunting the superiority of “maturity” and the inherent immaturity and selflessness of young people who haven’t yet progressed to the coveted status of “the adult,” we are hard pressed to account for adolescents as full persons. One writer for The Dallas Morning News, just so you know what we’re up against, recently claimed that “people are what children are supposed to become…” and continued to argue that adults live “…more real lives than those who have yet to grow up.”  It seems that there is a trend toward locating humanity in the social space (or “developmental stage”) we call “adulthood.” Even while we pay lip service to the humanity of the young people with whom we work, they may, in fact, be forced to look to adulthood for the true value and definition of their humanity.

Theologically, this just won’t do. In theological terms, maturity is somewhat illusory anyway—since life at any stage will end in death—and its desirability is no forgone conclusion. Jesus himself implied that spiritual “maturity” may look more like childhood than adulthood. He said, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NIV). Christian Noval, a Danish catholic priest and practical theologian in Germany, has argued that “…children and youth are complete human beings in their actuality and their value can’t just be seen in their potentiality.”* In other words, we don’t just have to look at what young people are becoming to find their humanity. We are free to look to their actual, concrete and lived experience just as they are. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has written, “…fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through, or spent in one way or another. It is measured according to the depth of lived experience.”

It is in the “depth of lived experience” that Christ encounters us and ministers to us. If ministry is, fundamentally, discovering God’s activity and participating in it, then the importance of seeing young people not only as potential persons on their way to maturity, but as full persons in their own right cannot be exaggerated. We have to answer—with an emphatic “yes!”—the question, are teenagers human?

* Christian Noval, “Youth and Creation: A Biblical Theology of Growth & Development” in The Journal of Youth & Theology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2013), 44.