I’ve been working with teenagers on and off for about five years now, and while I’m far from a seasoned veteran, I’ve made some observations here and there that seem to be consistent throughout the thoughts and behavior of most of the teenagers I’ve come across. For example, teenage boys communicate mainly in insults. There is a bond and rapport that forms between guys when they insult and taunt each other. Clearly this is one of the reasons I love to be around them–it fits my immature sense of humor. Also, in most teenage boys there is a real desire to see what kind of “stuff” one is made of. Outbreaks of wrestling matches, pushing, shoving, punching (all in good fun, of course) are entirely common among the guys at Wears Valley (see above photo). There is another consistent characteristic that I’ve noticed in my few years of working with teens. It is the line of thinking about Christian conduct that I call “The Do Not Ethic.”
The five teenagers who spoke to the group during our evening worship times last week all did a wonderful job. I am amazed at what these kids can do. When I was in high school I couldn’t speak in public–it was almost physically impossible for me. My hands would shake, my throat would dry up and close up… I almost started crying giving a speech in 7th grade because I was so nervous. These kids were marvelous. But what I noticed was that in almost every talk they gave, there was a bit of an overemphasis on “what not to do.” Don’t watch inappropriate movies. Don’t live in hypocrisy. Don’t try to toe the line when it comes to a physical relationship with your girlfriend or boyfriend. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Certainly, these are all good warnings, but it seems to me that there is a very dangerous ethic at work here that casts the Christian walk as something that takes life–with all of its opportunities, experiences and pleasures–cuts out all of the most appealing parts and leaves you with the rest: a dead, lifeless, pleasureless pursuit of religion. We see the dissonance between this ethic and the way Jesus describes life in him when we read, “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10), and “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
Don’t get me wrong. By no means do I think that these well-intentioned teens are the source of this ethic. Rather, I tend to think that this ethic is the result of path-of-least-resistance parenting. How easy it is to tell kids what not to do. But how much better it is to tell them what is good and right and true and pleasurable and excellent. How easy it is to say to a teen, “Don’t have sex until you’re married” just as they begin dating. But how much better it is to take the initiative to explain to them what a beautiful gift sex is; how it is a foretaste of heavenly things and wholly good, but that its goodness is inextricably bound to marriage? How easy it is to say to youth, “Don’t watch movies with curse words or nudity in them.” But how much better it is to explain what it means to fill one’s mind with good things; to ponder what is praiseworthy.
May we undo the “Do Not Ethic” by having the patience, diligence, and love to explain to the next generation what is good.