Swinging From The Chandelier: On Regret in Youth Ministry

In the church, alcoholism (in its various forms) is usually somewhat coldly approached as primarily a moral issue, especially when it exists among teenagers. Too often our ministry to young people is dominated by a kind of moralistic fear. Christianity is made into a moral code (including the reading of scripture as a moral virtue), and youth ministry becomes about making sure kids behave morally (though, instead, we use the word "Biblically" or "Christ-like").  In our preaching to youth and in our communication to adults as well, we use partying and alcoholism as typologies for sinful living. The person who drinks too much is synonymous with someone who's life is a mess. And while it's true that alcoholism does make one's life into a mess, by framing it the way we do, the guilt of the alcoholic individual is solely emphasized. But what if, instead of criminalizing alcohol and partying by focusing our vision on guilt, we considered the deeper, more ontological, issue of shame--the issue of the person desperately trying to hold their identity together?

I'm not usually one to get obsessed with pop-music, and it might just be because my family is out of town and I have too much time on my hands, but lately I've been addicted to Sia. My wife, Amanda, introduced me to her music pretty recently and I wasn't that interested at first. But lately, I find myself clicking from one youtube video to another, captivated by her music and her voice. Her video of "Chandelier" has been wildly popular, featuring 11 year-old Maddie Ziegler of Dance Moms. I'm not sure how much thought most people are putting into the song and the video--many, I'm sure, hear it as just another pop-song about partying--but with its serious (even dark) tone, it's far deeper than just a cool video with impressive choreography. The relevance to youth ministry should be unmistakable, not only because of the subject and content of the lyrics but also because of the implications of an innocent 11 year-old dancing to it. This is not someone on whom we would be compelled to pass moral judgement, and yet here she is, swinging from the chandelier, as it were.

I'm surely not qualified to analyze this video too technically, but I do think we have a lot to gain from thinking about it. There's a tragic sense to it, even in the facial expressions of Ziegler. There's this sense of pain and shame that bubbles beneath the surface of each smile, each stare. There's vacillation between joviality, innocence, and desperation. The choreography is a blend of beauty, sadness, and silliness. And the lyrics match these sentiments. It's worth mentioning, too, that when Sia performs this song live, she hides on stage, her face invisible to the audience (either hiding in the corner or face down on a bed while someone dances in the foreground). Not only does this shift the focus away from her as Sia and onto the child or the drama under the spotlight, but it points to the detachment of the performer from her audience, the detachment of the person from community. Through all of this, she highlights the problems of alcoholism, but quite differently than we normally do in youth ministry--centering not on guilt (indeed, decidedly not on guilt) but on shame--not morally but, in a sense, ontologically. The issue is alcoholism, but the issue really isn't alcoholism. The issue is shame, the depletion of self, and the refusal to regret.

In my own experience in ministering to kids in the church, I've noticed a propensity to detachment from regret, a detachment from community, a suppression of deep feelings of shame. I can remember specific times, in discussing with kids some of the less positive choices they've made,  when talking about forgiveness of guilt just didn't seem to be the right antidote because they didn't really feel guilty.  In fact, while they could admit that their decisions may have been poor, they refused to really deal with them at all as burdens. "I did what I did. Mistakes are how you learn in life. So I don't regret it. YOLO." It was another way of saying, "I don't want to deal with regrets, I don't want to bear the burden, so I'm just not going to regret." And thus, they disconnect themselves from the people with whom they should be in community, dealing with problems and bearing one another's burdens. They turn, instead, to more and more mechanisms of detachment, suppression, and isolation (i.e. the party scene or narcotics or maybe even online gaming).

In the second phase of a longitudinal study of youth and religion, researchers encountered this refusal to regret and the subsequent disconnect from any depth of community. In his forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Andrew Root mentions this. Taking cues from Christian Smith, he writes,
[Young people] told many stories to the interviewers, tales of incidents and episodes that led to brokenness, pain, and devastation. But as Smith says, they refused to say they regret these happenings...It seems this generation, for cultural reasons, has chosen to regret nothing, saying things like, 'yeah, I got pregnant, had an abortion, became addicted to alcohol, and lost a job before moving in with a guy that was totally bad for me, and all this hurt my relationship with my mom. But honestly, I don't regret it; it's just what it is.' This very mentality shows that there are significant events to regret but that the young person has chosen not to. But choosing not to...takes her farther and farther from community (207-208). 
Perhaps the "cultural reasons" to which Root refers are precisely the dominant insistence upon treating these things all primarily as moral issues, thus piling guilt on top of shame. In order to avoid the guilt, they suppress the shame.  Sia--not only in her intentionally and beautifully crafted choreography in the video but also in her live performances of the song, facing away from her audience--testifies to both the shame and the subsequent disconnect that happens in the suppression of shame. In churches we perpetuate the refusal to regret when we oppose all sin as immorality and when we elevate superstar spirituality over brutal honesty. We create spaces in which bearing one another's burdens is actually counterintuitive, where moral perfection and conquest of sin is the goal. Instead we increase burden by communicating that, in fact, they should have no regrets because regrets morally wrong.

What I think we in youth ministry can learn from Sia and, more importantly, from kids themselves, is that the issue with alcoholism and things like it is not so much the alcoholism itself. It is not, at least in this context, to be treated as a static moral choice. Rather, the real issue is shame... more importantly, the suppression of shame. Perhaps, above all, what we need from our youth ministries is not new mechanisms to keep kids sober and well behaved. Perhaps, instead, we need our youth ministries to become safe places for kids to regret with one another, to share their regrets and to bear one another's burdens. What we need is for youth ministries to be communities of confession (not just sharing lists of the bad things we don't regret, but actually confessing them as regrets), where shame is real and grace (not just forgiveness) is proclaimed, where we are accepted and affirmed even in all our weakness. All in all, we need youth ministries to be communities--real communities where honesty is valued above any ideal of good behavior or moral purity--where young people are invited out from the corner and into the foreground.