Eboo Patel, in his book Acts of Faith, describes a conversation he had with a Protestant man after Patel, founder of an interfaith youth movement, made a presentation about the importance of youth programs in religious communities. The man told Patel that he and his wife really enjoyed their church, but their teenage daughter hated it because there was no real youth program. Patel told him, “Change churches. . . Either that or make sure that the church starts a youth program that interests your daughter.”
“In my mind,” Patel writes, “it was a question of priorities. Was he more interested in his daughter liking church or himself liking it?” Most people choose themselves over their kids, he says.
It is an entirely understandable choice, but we should not be blind to the consequences. It means we will continue to fail our religious youth. I cannot help but think of the number of teenagers I know who say that they are bored in their congregations, that their church or synagogue or mosque or temple has little going on for them. The youth minister they liked was let go because of budget cuts. The Habitat for Humanity trip they were planning got canceled because the adult supervisor couldn’t make it at the last minute. The pastor or imam or rabbi can never remember their names.
Too many adults secretly consider the absence of young people in mainstream religious communities the natural course of events, viewing the kids as too self-absorbed, materialistic, and anti-authoritarian to be interested in religion. The result is that adults pay lip service to the importance of involving youth in faith communities, but let themselves off the hook when it comes to actually building strong, long-lasting youth programs. Youth activities are typically the top item in a congregation’s newsletter, but the last line in the budget. Youth programs are the most likely to be funded by short-term grants, and youth ministers are the first to be fired when a religious community has financial problems.
Acts of Faith, published by Beacon Press, is the 2011-2012 Common Read for Unitarian Universalists. Look for a longer excerpt from Acts of Faith in the Spring 2012 issue of UU World.