Lesson 1: What do we do with busy young people?
What Do We Do With Busy Youth?
By Nathan T. Stucky
24/7: A long, hard look at our youth
What would we discover about our young people if we knew everything they did every minute of every day for a full week?
About a year ago, I sought the answer to that question when I asked thirty-nine seniors at a private Christian school to complete a daunting task: keep a time diary for seven full days. I asked them to write down everything – when they slept, woke, worked, went to school, hung out with friends, went to church, the whole kit and caboodle. Luckily for me, the task was integrated into their school work. They received academic credit for keeping the time diary. I know for a fact they didn’t write everything down (somehow trips to the bathroom didn’t make everyone’s diary), but I still got a pretty good window into their lives.
After they completed the time diary, I sat down with them and asked about the process. “What would a total stranger learn about you if they found your time diary lying around, picked it up, and read it?”
“Busy” is one of the first words I hear in response.
A number of others echo the sentiment.
After about 90 minutes of unpacking and processing their diaries, I move toward wrapping up the conversation, “Do you all have any lingering questions about our conversation?”
After a brief silence, Heather speaks in a tone of voice that implies she’d never before considered the questions she was about to ask. “I guess I would say like, why is it that we don’t have enough time to rest? Like, what is like – what is making our lives so busy?” Heather didn’t seem to have a clue about how to answer her own questions. Heather and many of her classmates simply assume that busyness is part of life. They struggle to imagine life otherwise.
Heather and her classmates cannot speak for all young people. Heaven knows some of our youth need to find a higher gear and some motivation more than they need to slow down. Heather, on the other hand, does speak for a group of young people who have come to assume that busyness is simply part and parcel of what it means to be a young person and even a Christian in this day and age. Are we ok with this?
Busy is Better; Rest is for the Weak
Time-use researcher Jonathan Gershuny has written about busyness as a phenomenon in contemporary society and how it has become a “badge of honor.” He points out that our current view of busyness contrasts starkly with those from a century ago. At the dawn of the 20th century, the privileged, upper class was known for its leisure. At that time, a mark of making it in the world was the fact that one didn’t have to work so much, as opposed to the working class who had to…well…work. In 1900, busyness was associated with the lower class; in 2014, we now tend to associate busyness with privilege, importance, and prestige.
Labor statistics provide data that supports Gershuny’s argument. Lower classes in contemporary society find themselves with less work hours and more leisure time; the highest wage earners typically work the most hours and have the least leisure time. Of course, economic implications run through this whole scenario. One way to read the job description of the upper, busy class is that their job is to produce the goods and services that keep the lower classes buying and feeling busy, thus providing the mirage of prestige.
Though there is more than one way to read the economic implications, the lauding of busyness is hard to dispute. Take a look at folks sitting in an airport or at a coffee shop. Few are content to sit idly; most have out some piece of technology which helps portray the life of the important and busy.
The script of casual conversation sheds light on our perception of busyness as well.
“How are you?”
Few question this simple exchange. Within the matrix of contemporary economics and society, busy equals important.
It also means rest can be seen as a sign of weakness.
In the university town where I live, the trendiest coffee shop downtown sells mugs with a quippy caption, “Sleep is for the weak.” On one hand, the mug is clever and witty; on the other, it reinforces the broader society’s valorization of busyness and activity and its bias against rest.
So what do we do with busy kids?
Perhaps the first step is simply recognizing the ways we promote – either intentionally or unintentionally – the value system of a society which lauds busyness but looks suspiciously at rest. Do our ministries provide oases of rest, or do they merely add to the busyness?
One of the young people who filled out a time diary epitomizes the life of the over-scheduled teen. During the seven days of his time diary, Matthew attended school fulltime, went to church and youth group, worked twenty-six hours at a part-time job, and slept less than six hours each night. When Friday night rolled around, Matthew should have been ready to crash. Instead, he stayed up…all night…at his youth group lock-in.
The point here has less to do with banning lock-ins and more to do with thinking about how our ministries fit within the broader society and its frequent expectation that life on the run is the only life to live. We can live by an alternate rhythm and a different pace.
A number of years ago I met a youth pastor who structured all of her youth ministry retreats around napping. She recognized the intensity of the lives of her young people. Not only were many of them overscheduled, they were also navigating the high expectations of parents, teachers, coaches, and prospective college admissions boards. As a youth pastor, Tina decided she could offer grace in a very tangible way through naps on retreats. Though it initially disoriented her young people, it became a truly sacred and anticipated retreat time. Tina found a way for her ministry to proclaim the grace of God’s Sabbath rest while resisting the assumption that constant activity is the norm for God’s people.
Do we know how to not be busy?
After speaking a few years ago to a group of youth workers about Sabbath, a tired-looking gentleman approached me to seek advice. He sensed a need for Sabbath rest, but he wasn’t sure where to fit it into his day-to-day routine. His status as husband, father of three, full-time graduate student, full-time teacher, and volunteer youth leader left him wondering where he might squeeze in a little Sabbath rest. I tried to pastorally suggest that he may have to let go of some of his commitments as a first step toward practicing the Sabbath.
At some point, we have to ask hard questions about the number of hats we wear and the commitments we make. Do our commitments stem from our sense of divine call, or do they find their roots in a societal script that says the busier we are, the more important we are? Usually, the difficult choices are not between good work and bad work, but between multiple opportunities for good work. We think, “How can what I’m doing be bad when I’ve been given so many good opportunities?” At some point, the work and the busyness risk overshadowing the One who called us in the first place.
Exploring the resources in Christian theology and the Christian tradition.
At the end of the day, we can’t force our young people into a slower pace of life. The forces that exert themselves on our young people – and on us – are too strong and too complex. It’s not as if our young people simply woke up one day and decided to be busy. They have grown up in families, schools, clubs, churches, and a broader culture that have too frequently all sung the same tune: busy means better. If we add in a dose of the Protestant work ethic, we have the perfect storm for ceaseless activity.
Fortunately, our Christian theological heritage includes rich resources for slowing down. The practice of spiritual disciplines like silence, solitude, and simplicity all hold potential for an altered rhythm of life. Sabbath does as well.
At the same time, one of the great challenges in exploring these “disciplines” is that they can become simply another line on the list of tasks. They can simply add to our sense of busyness. On top of school, work, sports, band, and church, we need to find time for silence, solitude, and Sabbath. We get more exhausted just thinking about it.
If we are going to explore Christian theology and its practices on our journey toward resisting busyness, then we will need to allow our exploration to be truly theological. In other words, it must take into account the expectation that Christian practices are not merely practices that humans do. They must be practices that bring us into contact with the living God. They must find their roots in who God is and what God does.
In the next two entries, I want to explore Sabbath not only as a practice that resists the incessant busyness of our culture, but even more so as a critical component of God’s life and the relationship that God extends to humankind. I want to explore Sabbath theologically and see if that exploration helps us on our journey through busyness to an alternate rhythm of life rooted in God’s life and grace.
Nate Stucky hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he works closely with youth leadership education initiatives offered by the Mennonite Church. Nate is finishing a PhD in practical theology, and he has a special interest in the role of community formation, Sabbath, and agrarianism in the education of church leaders, pastors, youth ministers, parents, and teenagers.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- How often do you say “busy” in response to the question of “How are you?” Why is that?
- Watch Video together
- What examples have you seen of culture elevating “busy-ness” as an ideal?
- How does the church elevate “busy-ness,” whether intentionally or not?
- How do you see youth succumbing to the pressure to be busy?
- In contrast, how are youth afraid of not being busy enough?
- What kind of relief or anxiety do you feel as you think of a weekly Sabbath – a stopping point or letting go of activity?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)