Our model for youth ministry in Unitarian Universalism sucks. The reasons why it sucks begin in our recent history, and in our current responses to the social changes going on all around us.
History first: Our model of youth ministry is an amalgam of three old models; none of the older models is particularly relevant to today’s world.
(1) First, there is the core model of youth ministry dating back to around 1900, when the Unitarian and Universalist denominations (along with many other denominations in mainline Protestantism) decided that persons in the age range of about 14 to about 20 had different religious and spiritual needs than adults — they did, that is, if their families were wealthy enough to keep them in school through their mid-teens; and since mainline Protestants were the ruling elite in the United States at that time, many mainline Protestant families were wealthy enough to keep their kids in school up to or even past the age of 16. By contrast, families in the Black churches and “ethnic” Catholic churches were less likely to keep their children in school up into their mid-teens, and those churches were less likely to have youth ministries that looked like mainline Protestant youth ministries.
This first model of Unitarian and Universalist youth ministry is rooted in entitlement and privilege that is based in unconscious membership in a religious elite that ruled the United States to serve its own purposes and values.
(2) The second layer of youth ministry emerged in the 1950s, when mainline Protestantism was at its peak in the United States. During the 1950s, mainline Protestantism was a central feature of United States social and political life. Returning veterans looking for a sense of stability poured in the doors of mainline churches, bringing their many children with them. In addition to that, the economy in post-war America was booming; so money, too, poured into mainline churches. In mainline churches in the 1950s, nothing took much effort — there were so many people coming into churches that those leading and managing the churches were mostly flying by the seat of their pants, but it didn’t matter because even mediocre programs and ministries would succeed.
This second model of Unitarian and Universalist youth ministry is rooted in a culture of mediocrity that is based in an unexamined assumption that churches do not need careful management.
(3) The third layer of youth ministry emerged in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, during the emergence of feminist and other liberation theologies, and the concomitant rise of identity politics. In this era, old repressive norms of sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc., were being challenged throughout mainline churches. Unitarian Universalists, after a brief unsuccessful flirtation with black liberation theologies, settled down to incorporate second wave feminism, in the form of feminist liberation theology, into the core of its identity. The Unitarian Universalist youth movement was an early adopter of second wave feminist group processes, including consciousness-raising and empowerment techniques. In the 1970s, lower class and non-white women began to critique second wave feminist techniques for catering to upper middle class white women who were already greatly empowered (compared to women beneath them in social and racial status), but most Unitarian Universalists of the day still saw themselves as part of the country’s ruling elite, and were unable to respond constructively to such critiques — and the UU youth movement of the time was equally unable to respond to such critiques, for the same reasons. At the same time, the youth movement adopted identity politics wholeheartedly, deciding that youth were an oppressed minority who needed to be empowered and freed from adult domination.
This third model of Unitarian Universalist youth ministry is rooted in the goal of freeing an oppressed minority, a goal which is based in an incorrect assessment of the status of the mostly white upper-middle-class persons in UU youth programs.
That’s a very brief summary of the history of Unitarian Universalist youth ministries. Now we move into the present day, where we find that most Unitarian Universalist youth programs offer a woefully inadequate response to the social changes going on around us.
(1) In today’s world, the defects of identity politics are becoming increasingly evident. Identity politics offers too simple a view of the world. So while we know for sure that society continues to discriminate against women as compared to men, gender-queer persons have been challenging our simplistic binary notions of gender — and this forces us to ask: If there is more than one gender, how must we revise our understanding of sexism? And while we know for sure that society continues to discriminate against blacks, lesbians, and women, persons with multiple identities challenge our neat categories of oppression — and this forces us to ask: If someone is a black lesbian, why should she be forced to separate her identity and her struggle for equality into three separate parts? So many elements of our youth programming — youth caucus at General Assembly, youth empowerment, separation of youth programming from oppressive adults — is rooted in the assumptions of identity politics, but now we have to question the oversimplification that lies at the very heart of identity politics.
Even within the limited world view of identity politics — even if we deny that cracks are showing in the many walls that identity politics uses to sort persons — it’s getting increasingly difficult to maintain that the mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class, mostly college-bound Unitarian Universalist adolescents that make up most UU youth programs are in any meaningful way oppressed. If most participants in UU youth programs cannot be considered oppressed, then we must ask ourselves why we are trying to liberate youth. To put it more pointedly, if UU youth are already empowered and already a part of the socio-economic elite in the United States, why do we say that they must be empowered?
(2) In today’s world, teenagers are unlikely to learn much about practical religion and theology outside the congregation. Schools may teach teenagers a little bit about religion in the context of the academic study of various religions, but most schools cannot teach actual lived religion and lived theology. Even those private schools that can and do teach some lived religion and theology are generally preparing teenagers for elite colleges, and elite colleges care little about lived religion and theology; and college preparatory schools will not waste much time on topics that don’t get their students into the “best” schools.
Yet the teen years are when persons first enter into formal operations thinking, and can (for the first time) think abstractly — in other words, this is the first age at which persons can actually do serious theology. In the past, mainline Protestants could expect some serious consideration of Protestant theology and religion in public schools, and teenagers would be expected to attend Sunday services and listen to sermons that would expose them to lived religion and lived theology.
(A short digression: to be honest, even if teenagers did attend UU Sunday services, or even UU adult religious education programs, teenagers would get very little in the way of serious lived religion and lived theology. Most adult UUs evade serious theology — most adult Unitarian Universalists think of our congregations as little more than outlets for what they call “social justice,” although what most adult UUs call social justice looks suspiciously like the same old program of the old Protestant ruling elites.)
But if we keep our teenagers out of Sunday services by segregating them into identity-politics-based youth programs, they will get no opportunity for serious consideration of lived religion and lived theology, at what is very critical developmental stage. Even as late as the 1970s, teenagers could be assumed to get some theological education somewhere, which meant that youth ministry could be nothing more than entertaining and amusing the youth who showed up. Not any more. And we’re ignoring this new reality.
(3) Since the 1990s, we’ve had solid research that shows that youth participation in congregational life correlates with a lower incidence of risky behaviors (e.g., illegal drug use, unprotected sex, etc.). While it might be too much to say that participation in congregational life saves teen lives, such a statement would not be too far from the truth.
At the same time, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that occasionally our congregations do save teen lives. I think of teens who came out as homosexual with the support of their congregations; teens who have survived being bullied with the help of their congregations; etc. (Unfortunately, I can also think of a handful of teens who did not survive, in spite of congregational support.) I am not hesitant to say that congregations can save the lives of teenagers. And when I talk with other Unitarian Universalists, they mostly agree with me.
However, we Unitarian Universalists seem to be unable to articulate how we save teen lives, or even why we save teen lives. Some of us might say that we save teen lives because of “the inherent worth and dignity” of all persons; those of us with more theological sophistication might point to evolving Universalist theology to explain why we want to save teen lives. But how do we do it? We can’t say we do it through youth groups and youth empowerment, because I can offer examples of teens who didn’t bother with a youth-empowerment youth group, but who were saved by their congregation. And we probably don’t want to say that we offer another youth program like the Girl Scouts or soccer teams, because our youth programs for the most part aren’t nearly as well run as most Girl Scout troops or soccer teams. At the most basic level of safety, few UU youth programs require criminal background checks of volunteer staff — and few UU youth programs offer a program that is as well-thought-out or compelling as the Girl Scouts curriculum, or soccer competition.
We may save lives in our UU youth programs, but only by accident, and not because we really mean to do so.
Now you know why I think most UU youth programs and ministries suck. The next step is to figure out what to do about it. And while I can’t promise when I’ll write about that — I’m in the middle of a major volunteer commitment on top of the demands of my job — I promise you that in the not-too-distant future I will get around to floating some of my ideas of how we could improve our Unitarian Universalist youth ministries and programs.