I recently finished reading a small yet powerful book titled, A Mind for God by James Emery White. As I thought through the personal implication of this book on my own spiritual life I couldn’t help but think about the following regarding youth growing up in today’s culture.
Emery White starts his book off with the idea that the god of this world assaults those living within it and is not without intellectual forces, which he arrays against the kingdom. Within this assault are four major ideas of which are critical to understand. I believe these to be of ultimate importance to those of us in youth ministry as well.
The basic idea of relativism is: What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. What is moral is dictated by a particular situation in light of a particular or social location. Moral values become a matter of personal opinion or private judgment rather than something grounded in objective truth.
To be autonomous is to be independent. Autonomous individualism maintains that each person is independent in terms of destiny and accountability. Ultimate moral authority is self-generated. In the end, we answer to no one but ourselves, for we are truly on our own. Our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority.
The value of narcissistic hedonism is the classic “I, me, mine” mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. The “Culture of Narcissism” is concerned with a current taste for individual therapy instead of religion. The quest for personal well-being, health and psychic security has replaced the older hunger for personal salvation.
Reductive naturalism states that all that can be known within nature is that which can be empirically verified. What is real is only that which can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled or touched and then verified, meaning able to be replicated through experimentation. Knowledge is “reduced” to this level of knowing. If it cannot be examined in a tangible, scientific manner, it is not simply unknowable but meaningless.
- Which of the above do you struggle with the most in your own personal journey?
- Which of the above do you see most in the kids in your youth ministry?
- How do we collectively address these issues in our own lives and the lives of our youth?
Schemas — What They Are
A schema is an extremely stable, enduring negative pattern that develops during childhood or adolescence and is elaborated throughout an individual’s life. We view the world through our schemas. When one does not learn a healthy theology and understanding of who they are in Christ, these schemas take root where theology should live.
Schemas are important beliefs and feelings about oneself and the environment which the individual accepts without question. They are self-perpetuating, and are very resistant to change. For instance, children who develop a schema that they are incompetent rarely challenge this belief, even as adults. The schema usually does not go away without therapy. Overwhelming success in people’s lives is often still not enough to change the schema. The schema fights for its own survival, and, usually, quite successfully.
It’s also important to mention the importance of needs in schema formation and perpetuation. Schemas are formed when needs are not met during childhood and then the schema prevents similar needs from being fulfilled in adulthood. For instance a child whose need for secure attachments is not fulfilled by his parents may go for many years in later life without secure relationships while seeking maladaptive ways (often sinful but functional) to satisfy his or her longings.
Even though schemas persist once they are formed, they are not always in our awareness. Usually they operate in subtle ways, out of our awareness. However, when a schema erupts or is triggered by events, our thoughts and feelings are dominated by these schemas. It is at these moments that people tend to experience extreme negative emotions and have dysfunctional thoughts.
There are eighteen specific schemas. Most individuals have at least two or three of these schemas, and often more. A brief description of each of these schemas is provided below.
This schema refers to the belief that one’s primary emotional needs will never be met by others. These needs can be described in three categories: Nurturance—needs for affection, closeness and love; Empathy—needs to be listened to and understood; Protection—needs for advice, guidance and direction. Generally parents are cold or removed and don’t adequately care for the child in ways that would adequately meet the above needs.
This schema refers to the expectation that one will soon lose anyone with whom an emotional attachment is formed. The person believes that, one way or another, close relationships will end eminently. As children, these individuals may have experienced the divorce or death of parents. This schema can also arise when parents have been inconsistent in attending to the child’s needs; for instance, there may have been frequent occasions on which the child was left alone or unattended to for extended periods.
This schema refers to the expectation that others will intentionally take advantage in some way. People with this schema expect others to hurt, cheat, or put them down. They often think in terms of attacking first or getting revenge afterwards. In childhood, these individuals were often abused or treated unfairly by parents, siblings, or peers.
This schema refers to the belief that one is isolated from the world, different from other people, and/or not part of any community. This belief is usually caused by early experiences in which children see that either they, or their families, are different from other people.
This schema refers to the belief that one is internally flawed, and that, if others get close, they will realize this and withdraw from the relationship. This feeling of being flawed and inadequate often leads to a strong sense of shame. Generally parents were very critical of their children and made them feel as if they were not worthy of being loved.
This schema refers to the belief that one is incapable of performing as well as one’s peers in areas such as career, school or sports. These individuals may feel stupid, inept or untalented. People with this schema often do not try to achieve because they believe that they will fail. This schema may develop if children are put down and treated as if they are a failure in school and other spheres of accomplishment. Usually the parents did not give enough support, discipline, and encouragement for the child to persist and succeed in areas of achievement, such as schoolwork or sport.
This schema refers to the belief that one is not capable of handling day-to-day responsibilities competently and independently. People with this schema often rely on others excessively for help in areas such as decision-making and initiating new tasks. Generally, parents did not encourage these children to act independently and develop confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
Vulnerability to Harm and Illness
This schema refers to the belief that one is always on the verge of experiencing a major catastrophe (financial, natural, medical, criminal, etc.). It may lead to taking excessive precautions to protect oneself. Usually there was an extremely fearful parent who passed on the idea that the world is a dangerous place.
This schema refers to a pattern in which you experience too much emotional involvement with others – usually parents or romantic partners. It may also include the sense that one has too little individual identity or inner direction, causing a feeling of emptiness or of floundering. This schema is often brought on by parents who are so controlling, abusive, or so overprotective that the child is discouraged from developing a separate sense of self.
This schema refers to the belief that one must submit to the control of others in order to avoid negative consequences. Often these individuals fear that, unless they submit, others will get angry or reject them. Individuals who subjugate ignore their own desires and feelings. In childhood there was generally a very controlling parent.
This schema refers to the excessive sacrifice of one’s own needs in order to help others. When these individuals pay attention to their own needs, they often feel guilty. To avoid this guilt, they put others’ needs ahead of their own. Often individuals who self-sacrifice gain a feeling of increased self-esteem or a sense of meaning from helping others. In childhood the person may have been made to feel overly responsible for the well being of one or both parents.
This schema refers to the belief that you must suppress spontaneous emotions and impulses, especially anger, because any expression of feelings would harm others or lead to loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, retaliation or abandonment. You may lack spontaneity, or be viewed as uptight. This schema is often brought on by parents who discourage the expression of feelings.
This schema refers to the belief that whatever you do is not good enough, that you must always strive harder. The motivation for this belief is the desire to meet extremely high internal demands for competence, usually to avoid internal criticism. People with this schema show impairments in important life areas, such as health, pleasure or self-esteem. Usually these individuals’ parents were never satisfied and gave their children love that was conditional on outstanding achievement.
This schema refers to the belief that you should be able to do, say, or have whatever you want immediately regardless of whether that hurts others or seems reasonable to them. You are not interested in what other people need, nor are you aware of the long-term costs to you of alienating others. Parents who overindulge their children and who do not set limits about what is socially appropriate may foster the development of this schema. Alternatively, some children develop this schema to compensate for feelings of emotional deprivation or defectiveness.
This schema refers to the inability to tolerate any frustration in reaching one’s goals, as well as an inability to restrain expression of one’s impulses or feelings. When lack of self-control is extreme, criminal or addictive behavior rule your life. Parents who did not model self-control, or who did not adequately discipline their children, may predispose them to have this schema as adults.
This schema refers to the placing of too much emphasis on gaining the approval and recognition of others at the expense of one’s genuine needs and sense of self. It can also include excessive emphasis on status and appearance as a means of gaining recognition and approval. individuals with this schema are generally extremely sensitive to rejections by others and try hard to fit in. Usually they did not have their needs for unconditional love and acceptance met by their parents in their early years.
This schema refers to a pervasive pattern of focusing on the negative aspects of life while minimizing the positive aspects. Individuals with this schema are unable to enjoy things that are going well in their lives because they are so concerned with negative details or potential future problems. They worry about possible failures no matter how well things are going for them. Usually these individuals had a parent who worried excessively.
This schema refers to the belief that people deserve to be harshly punished for making mistakes. People with this schema are critical and unforgiving of both themselves and others. They tend to be angry about imperfect behaviors much of the time. In childhood these individuals usually had at least one parent who put too much emphasis on performance and had a punitive style of controlling behavior.
There are two primary schema operations: Schema healing and schema perpetuation. All thoughts, behaviors and feelings may be seen as being part of one of these operations. Either they perpetuate the schema or they heal the schema. We will explore both in part 2.
As God’s beloved children, we cannot begin to grasp the infinite worth we are to Him on an unconditional basis (Ephesians 5:1, 1 John 3:1,2). We were “bought at a [very high] price” (1 Corinthians 6:20), “chosen” (Ephesians 1:4), a “dwelling place in which God lives” (Ephesians 2:22), and much, much more. In fact, more than 200 descriptions of us in the New Testament attest to our unconditional worth because of Christ’s work. Let’s not deny his grace by giving in to untrue feelings of worthlessness.
In the spirit of Henri Nouwen’s great work “The Return of the Prodigal Son” take a moment from your busy day and meditate on the image below and bask in the knowledge that the Father loves you because you are simply His, and not because of what you do…
In an experiment, piranha were placed in a large tank separated from their food by a see through glass divider. After several days of ramming their heads against the glass divider the piranha learned that it was a futile effort to try and get the food.
The glass divider was then removed yet they starved to death while swimming freely in a place where there was food available. The piranha had learned that their efforts were useless and came to believe that their situation would never change so they just accepted the “reality” of their experience.
Youth are especially susceptible to limiting beliefs about themselves. When we make assumptions about students based on externals (i.e., clothing, music, language, behaviors, etc.) we often reinforce those limiting beliefs that they hold or are told about themselves.
Think for a moment how this might impact how you approach a new student. Think about your personal values and biases and how they impact the initial encounters with students you are trying to connect with.
Here are two scenarios illustrating this very idea:
1. John – He shows up to your youth group on Sunday night with some of the other popular kids from your church. He is wearing a football jersey and is relatively good looking. He appears to be very outgoing and has an air of confidence about him. You instantly like him and are drawn to him. In your mind you envision him being a primary influencer of other students and hope to get him on board with being a peer leader. You can see that potential within the first few minutes of meeting him.
2. Sarah – She shows up wearing dark eyeliner, dark clothes, and her hair is dyed with blond, pink and black highlights. He black cargo pants are too big and have babypins up and down on leg. She wears lots of bracelets on her wrists and her shirt is a concert tee from the band Rise Against. She moves slowly and doesn’t talk to a lot of other students. She has writing on her hands and arms as well. You assume she comes from a home where her parents don’t pay much attention to her (because who would let their kid leave the house looking like this, right?). She’s probably a cutter, which means she’s probably been abused or at the very least is depressed. This kid really needs Jesus and you will do your best to introduce her to the one that will make it all better.
These are pretty typical students to show up at youth group. And our biases and values play an unwitting role in determining how we will interact with each of them. Here’s what you don’t know:
1. John – He sells prescription drugs he gets from doctors from an old football injury. He sells his Vicodin to his friends so they can amplify their buzz while drinking. He also steals the Vicodin from his mother’s purse when she’s asleep to buy alcohol with. She sleeps so much because she has to work two jobs because John’s dad was recently layed-off and has been drinking to manage his depression. His motive for coming to your youth group was to find new customers to sell his product to. Nobody suspects him because he looks like the “All-American Boy” and is an athletic hero for your small community.
2. Sarah – She has an intact family that is supportive and allows her to be expressive of her identity. She is artistic and writes poetry, draws, and plays the piano. He heart breaks for her friends and she wants nothing more than to see them come to youth group and find and follow Christ. She has a prayer journal bigger than your bible and most of her prayers are for her hurting friends. She volunteers at the Special Olympics because her younger brother has Downs Syndrome and she is passionate about helping others. She sometimes feels alone but is usually emotionally secure. People tend to avoid her because of how she looks and dresses.
Back to the piranha, when we respond to students, based on our perceptions, biases, values, and expectations there is the possibility that we will play a role in limiting who they were created to be. If the case of John, people can unintentionally reinforce his sinful behavior by acting only on their assumptions that his is the “All-American Kid” and worthy of our praise. The result is that John learns that all the bad stuff he is doing is ok so long as he continues to play the roles we want him to play.
In the case of misunderstood Sarah, it won’t be long before she submits to the preconceived ideas and expectations that other hold her to. It’s hard for a solitary teenager to stand up underneath that kind of force, regardless of how supportive her family is. Her joy and confidence will leak over time.
As we approach students in an effort to connect let’s check our biases and expectations at the door and just allow the students to be who they are, the good, the bad, and the ugly, because that is honest. It is authentic. It is transparent and it’s a great place to start.
- What kinds of kids do you most naturally connect with?
- What kinds of kids do you struggle to connect with?
- What role, if any, do your personal biases play in how you interact with both kinds of students?
- What would help you remain objective when first meeting a student?
Anger and fear are closely related emotions. For instance, they both travel through the amygdala in the brain. They need to be closely connected in our brain because people often have to decide quickly between standing their ground or running away in the face of immediate danger. That’s the classic fight-or-flight choice. However, kids growing up in impoverished, urban settings seem to have a strong fight and flight reaction when they perceive a threat.
Imagine you are one of a small group of soldiers conducting a search for enemy troops. You’re expecting to run into a few of the enemy at a time. Instead, though, you stumble across a much larger unit. The enemy greatly outnumbers you. So now, what do you do? You must shoot and run at the same time. That’s the only way to survive. And what are you feeling? Both anger and fear. Your anger helps you fire at the enemy. Your fear helps you escape.
It’s easy to see that for urban youth survival or defensive behaviors are usually triggered by mixed (and very strong) feelings of fear and anger. It’s the combination of these two emotions that overwhelms reason. True, when someone is raging, all you can see is the anger. But remember the core message: “I’ve got to kill you before you kill me.” That’s very different than “I want to kill you and get what I want” or “I want to kill you to get you out of my way.” It’s the fear of death that directs the attack.
Why is this so important? It means that when helping urban youth we are likely going to have to equip them to deal with their his or her fear as well as his or her anger. It means that feeling safe is key to overcoming such a reflexive response. We’re talking about helping youth change how they relate to the world.
Now here’s the dilemma. Traumatized people (many urban youth have been traumatized) see danger everywhere, anywhere, with everyone. There is no safe place. There are no safe people. Most importantly, they often see danger where there is no danger. So how can youth quit experiencing survival rage? The answer, obviously, is complex. He or she must experience places in their lives that they are safe enough, so he or she can stop running and stop shooting. Note the words “safe enough” – not perfectly safe. None of us live in a perfectly safe world. A safe enough world is one in which you feel no immediate danger to your life and well-being. A safe enough place is one in which you believe that most people, especially those closest to you, are on your side and want to protect rather than harm you.
That is a beautiful picture of the body of Christ coming alive in these forgotten places. Providing refuge and sanctuary for weary urban youth simply looking for a place safe enough to stop running.