Ridley's Tutor in Youth Ministry, Becca Dean, challenges us to ask how we can welcome teenagers into the Christmas story, and what we can learn in the process about the disruptive liminality of the Word made flesh.
Christmas strikes me as a strange time to be a teenager, neither a child nor an adult.
Slowly relinquishing narratives of Father Christmas and stockings, losing the magic of listening out for sleigh bells, not yet ready for the luxuries of Stilton and port. Instead, Christmas is accompanied with the ill-fitting and scratchy clothing of adolescence, feeling all the emotions all of the time: morose, anxious, ecstatic, embarrassed.
I remember as a tween, the first Christmas I told my mum that I was too old to have the doll that she had suggested as a Christmas present. When my younger sister opened hers, my gaze of longing must have been so clear to my watchful mother that she went out and bought one for me after all the week after.
Now I have teen-aged nephews, I struggle to know what to give them. The books and games of previous years feeling too childish; they now want money for driving lessons or to go towards games consoles.
One of the young people in my research put their strange ‘in-between’ status so well, demonstrated in church refreshments: “If you’re a child you have squash, and if you’re an adult you have tea or coffee.” It meant a great deal to them as a signal of welcome when the church started providing cans of diet coke amidst the after-church refreshments. An extravagance which spoke of having place and value amidst the family of God.
“If you’re a child you have squash, and if you’re an adult you have tea or coffee.”
I wonder what the diet coke equivalent is for Christmas in our churches? How do we demonstrate to the young people in our community, as puberty and coming of age puts them on high alert for signs that they’re ok, that they belong? Where is the place in our sweet nativity scenes for the awkward teenager skulking among the straw?
But, of course, there are young people in the scene right at the centre of our story. We see Mary the teenage mum, with all the vulnerability of a changing body, a precious but heavy load - the Son of God - in her arms, divine and yet so viscerally incarnate. Her great calling had made her a social and spiritual outsider and the politics of her time an alien.
God became like me
"Yet maybe here within our teenagers, we see something more amazing about the Christmas message."
Losing the security and romance of childhood is hard for young people. And it’s hard for their parents and for our wider communities! Yet maybe here within our teenagers, we see something more amazing about the Christmas message: amidst our own scratchy vulnerability and liminality the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Scripture Union’s latest resource for children at Christmas tells children: "God became like me!" But of course this applies to young people too. Maybe this is all the more applicable to the less domesticated, less compliant, less at-ease in our communities.
A challenge for our churches
My question is this: how can we think carefully and creatively about welcoming the young people into our Christmas story and in so doing realising afresh that the incarnation wasn’t simply a sweet and funny tale but a disruptive and outrageous intervention for God to be with and even like
our very human selves?
Last Christmas, my youngest nephew surprised me by giving a large proportion of his Christmas and birthday money to the local air ambulance service. It made me so proud, but also challenged me; I had so wanted to give him something that he wanted to keep, but instead he wanted the gift of being able to give away.
Maybe we could go one step further than welcoming our young people with hospitality, and instead offer the more courageous welcome of inviting young people to challenge and shape our communities, and in so doing receive the gifts that they might bring to us, in the surprising ways that they carry the incarnate God within.
Becca Dean, Tutor in Youth Ministry