As the Olympics approached, there was a lot of press regarding Simone Biles’ quadruple flip. Fans were invited to “Keep Your Eyes on Simone”, possibly the best gymnast of all time.
But during the Tokyo games, Biles withdrew from the competition due to mental health concerns. Last week, she, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the FBI’s inability to take action regarding their allegations of abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar.
The press put enormous pressure on Biles. We the fans turned around and did the same as the structures meant to protect her and her teammates, including the US Olympic Committee and the FBI, abandoned her to face the pressure alone while facing to his sexual abuse. Unfortunately, these athletes are not alone.
Sociologist Chap Clark, in his book “Hurt 2.0,” described how the social structures meant to nurture teens actually fail them, forcing teens to fend for themselves as they deal with the pressures of unaided adults. Patricia Hersch, in “A Tribe Apart”, comes to the same conclusion: adolescents rise up outside the intervention of parents who have no idea what they are going through at school or outside.
Our culture turned the American gymnast team into commodities even though it was abandoned. They could earn gold, but we still haven’t saved them. Likewise, we can often be seen commodifying all of our children for what they can do for us for us as we abandon them to systems that will not support them. Is it any wonder then that they resent our educational systems, the activities we demand of them, and even the church?
Jesus does not haggle teenagers. Jesus receives them as those who are really burdened and need rest (Matthew 11: 25-29). Jesus receives young people despite the fact that culturally they offer him very little. Jesus honors the children around him by laying his hands on them not because of what they can offer him, but simply because they are persons (Matthew 19: 13-15). Jesus then protects these little ones from the forces of evil and even brings them back from death. Jesus serves and protects, especially when young people cannot give him anything in return.
Theologians describe this dynamic as that of being and action. God and humans act according to what they are. Jesus gives priority to the being of the young above all that they do in the same way that the Father declared the Beloved Son before he performed an act of ministry (Matthew 3:17 ). Jesus offers young people fellowship with God as he is, while God offers fellowship with our children as they are. Action is important, but only after we know who we are and who we are. Being proceeds from action.
Churches may not be able to do much about systems like the US Olympic Committee or the FBI. But we can act like the God we serve. Our actions as churches must reflect the being of God who receives and protects young people.
Congregations are just as tempted as other structures to commodify our children as numbers, clients of religious goods, or leaders that we can use to move our agendas forward. But Jesus teaches us to receive students for what they are, not for what they can give us and to protect them as they are from the forces of evil. As churches act in this way, we are in fact able to offer the rest that Jesus offers to those who are heavily burdened.
– Michael Mauriello is Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Director of Church Relations, Assessment and Training at the Passage Institute for Youth and Theology at LeTourneau University.