Helping teenagers be the best neighbors in a divided nation

Photo by Andy Lee

Regardless of your political party affiliation, or how you voted in the last presidential election, I am guessing you will agree: our country feels divided. From my own limited autobiographical perspective, our nation feels more divided than I can remember. My three kids know it. Virtually every kid in America knows it.

It feels ironic, or striking, or appropriate, or fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-adjective-works-for-you that the day upon which we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. falls during the same week as the Presidential Inauguration. In a sermon written five years before his assassination, Dr. King reflected upon one of Jesus’ parables—a parable that offers hope in the midst of divisive times. A parable that church-attending teenagers have heard but need to hear this week with fresh ears.

A parable not about twenty-first century Democrats and Republicans but about first-century Jews and Samaritans.

Pressed for a definition of neighbor in Luke 10, Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man brutally beaten by robbers during the dangerous journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. While a Jewish priest and Levite ignore the injured man’s needs, a Samaritan—an ethnic and religious outsider—takes pity on him.

The Samaritan bandages his wounds, likely using pieces of his own clothing to do so.

He offers his own wine as a disinfectant. He provides his own oil as a soothing lotion. Then the Samaritan pays—out of his own wallet—for the beaten man to spend the night in an inn.

This generosity would have been remarkable for anyone. But it is especially striking given the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.

What enabled the Samaritan to cross the bridge of hatred and show such kindness? Dr. King’s answer:

It seems to me that this [Samaritan] man’s goodness can be described in one word: altruism … The dictionary defines altruism as ‘regard for, and devotion to, the interest of others.’ Indeed, the Samaritan was great because he made the first law of his life not self preservation, but other preservation.

Self-preservation is our natural default

In less than 30 seconds, I can think of three times today that I put my own interests ahead of others. If you give me three minutes, I’m guessing that figure will double. Or triple.

And teenagers are developmentally even more self-interested. Especially between ages 11 and 16, teenagers become consumed with their own needs and desires. It’s only natural that they have a hard time seeing past their own nose. Unless it’s to look at themselves in a mirror.

(Side note: One of our kids recently chose to move to a different seat at our kitchen table because their original seat was directly across from a window that came to function as a mirror. They realized they had started looking at their reflection in the window about every 60 seconds during dinner. Almost involuntarily. It was like they couldn’t help it.)

But this egocentrism doesn’t mean that churches and families stop inviting teenagers to look beyond themselves. As we saw in our recent Growing Young research, not only is “neighboring well” good for our nation, it’s good for young people also. According to our data, teenagers and young adults are drawn to churches that challenge them to give of themselves to others (tweet that).

Neighboring well: a process and posture

So how do we help young people neighbor well this week—and in general? If I had to answer that question in a few phrases based on our research, it would be that:

It’s more of a process than a position.

It’s more about a posture than a proclamation. 

While the path to neighboring well is not always clear in such tumultuous times, teenagers and emerging adults consistently described in interviews and focus groups how much they care about their church’s process or journey for arriving at particular beliefs, positions, and statements. Especially when it comes to heated cultural issues like politics or human sexuality, a church’s predetermined agenda can be sour for young people to stomach. When churches seem closed to dialogue, young adults often look elsewhere for more generative conversations about issues that matter most to them.

Still, churches in our Growing Young study that neighbor well are anything but theological lightweights. They simply demonstrate a generous spirit in the face of differences like we face this week. When interview participants describe their church, they are eight times more likely to mention the diversity of beliefs in their church than the similarities.

One 18-year-old from Minnesota shared, “We talk about the big social issues . . . we definitely engage those. But we don’t tell people what to think about them. And that is what I really love. I have never felt awkward asking one of the leaders, ‘What do you think about this?’ because I know they’re not going to tell me exactly what to think. Instead, they engage me in conversation. And then through that, we can derive together the ways that we should live out our beliefs.”

More conversations, less closed doors.

So if you want to have a generative conversation with a young person this week, try asking them:

1) How would you describe the climate in our country these days?

2) What do you like about that climate? What do you dislike?

3) How would you describe your own political leaning? If you’re not sure, what do you know about your parents’ tendencies?

4) What, if anything, do you appreciate about a differing political party or position? What, if anything, makes you anxious about another party or position?

5) How does your faith inform your political beliefs?

6) How does your faith inform how you intend to treat others after the Inauguration?

7) What do you wish God would do in and for our country? How about we pray about that right now?

Choosing to be true neighbors

Are the differences between our rivaling political parties great? Are those differences very real? And am I grieving over what’s happening in our country these days? Yes, yes, and yes.

But when we or young people we know are tempted to go radio silent, lash out in anger, or write off those who disagree with us, may we remember more of Dr. King’s teachings about the neighborly example of the Good Samaritan:

The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where they stand in moments of comfort and moment of convenience, but where they stand in moments of challenge and moments of controversy. The true neighbor is the [person] who will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.

I’m not there yet. And I don’t think I will ever fully be there. But I want to be closer. And I want to learn with and from young people along the road.