By Andy Jung, Pastor at FBC Albermarle
After hearing about the possible impact of the content from Netflix’s original 13 Reasons Why, I decided to watch the series for myself. I want to stay in touch with today’s adolescent culture but I am finding it incredibly difficult to stay current. So I took the time to watch all of the episodes to see what all of the fuss was about.
Since completing the series, I’ve had a hard time processing the myriad of complex issues the show brought to the forefront. Aside from teenage suicide, it tackled issues such as rape, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying, misuse of technology, adolescent abandonment, social clustering, teenage sexual hyperactivity, sexual identity, loneliness and so much more. The complexities of each of these issues individually can be overwhelming to decipher but all of these issues combined make it hard to know where to even start.
I’ve spent over twenty years in Student Ministry within the context of the local church. I’ve studied youth culture seriously for the past twelve years. I’ve even obtained a post-graduate degree in the area of youth, family and culture. I’ve read countless books on adolescents and how to help them navigate these difficult years. Even with all of my experience and training, I feel incredibly inadequate to deal with all of the issues the show presented. Yet, this is the very life our students live daily. They are asked to navigate all of these complex issues at once without the experience or education. Lord, have mercy.
As a pastor of a local church, I’ve been charged to care for the entire flock. I spend most of my time and energy focused on adults in my congregation but I’ve not lost the sense of connection with teenagers, especially my high school students. I’ve been trained to see the world through the lens of the cross of Jesus within the paradigm of the Church. So, as I try to make heads or tails of the issues presented in 13 Reasons Why, a few thoughts have come to the forefront relative to the global Church.
Before I delve into my thoughts and reasons, I want to provide few disclaimers. First, I’m not encouraging our teenagers to watch the series. It is graphic, raw and at times disturbing. Yet, the popularity of the show tells me that many young and middle adolescents have already watched and have been exposed to the content. Second, if adults choose to watch the show, my prayer is that you watch it with great compassion for our post-millennial generation. Lastly, watch it with an open mind and without judgment. Our focus should be on how to help our adolescents through the difficulties rather than being judgmental of the state of morality in our culture.
With those disclaimers in place, please allow me to share a few of my reflections. First, 13 Reasons Why reaffirms the research presented by Dr. Chap Clark in his book Hurt 2.0. In his groundbreaking research, Chap concluded that our adolescents have experienced a culture of systemic abandonment. The external systems that were created to help support adolescents have been hijacked by adult motivations and agendas. Sports, music, dance, drama, Scouts and even the Church are struggling for existence and often have abandoned the needs of our youth to pursue the needs of adults leading the organizations. In addition, Chap surmised that today’s adolescents have suffered the loss of significant adult relationships that once served as the primary sources of nurture and community. The losses of family stability and adult mentoring relationships have stunted the transition from adolescence to adulthood and have greatly lengthened that process.
The show also validated Chap’s assertion of the “world beneath.” In response to living in a culture of systemic abandonment, our teenagers have created a sophisticated and pervasive underground society in high schools that is largely unknown to parents, teachers and administrators. Chap pointed to three broad reasons to why the “world beneath” exists. First, our students perceive that they have no other choice in order to survive. They have had to band together and create a “safe” space, no matter how twisted and hurtful it might be. Second, they are relationally starved. 13 Reasons Why highlight this in profound ways. Because our students hunger for relationships, they are willing to endure most anything to be noticed. Third, our adolescents have an amazing ability to band together, unwilling to sacrifice one another to the world of adults. Once again, the show exemplifies this with great clarity.
The world our high school students experience today is vastly different than the one I experienced 25 years ago. Chap captures the poignancy of today’s high school culture: “Beneath the superficial and all-too-often cosmetic layer of high school life, there are dark, lonely corners where the neon light of sanitized conformity seldom penetrates.” Though similar issues of identity, sense of belonging and life’s purpose existed back then, the intensity of these issues have increased exponentially and the support in helping adolescents navigate these turbulent waters have decreased dramatically. As adults in the church, we must learn to empathize with our young people if we are going to be a place of refuge and healing. We must remain connected to their generation by studying their culture, engaging them in meaningful conversations and showing interest in their personal lives. It is up to us as adults to make the effort to connect with adolescents, not the other way around.
Next, churches must become a safety net for our adolescents. It is widely accepted in the sociological community that the life stage of adolescents have lengthened in recent years. Even just 25 years ago when I graduated high school, it was widely accepted that adolescence began at the age of 13 and ended when graduating high school at 18. Today, most scholars believe adolescence begins as early as 11 years of age and ends as late as 29 years of age. There are many sociological reasons to why adolescence has extended from a period of five years to possibly as long as 18 years or even more. There are too many reasons to delve into this topic but the fact of the matter is, our young people start maturing at an earlier age and don’t finish the process until much later in life. In some sense, “Twenty-five is the new 15.”
In a world where the perception of life is easier today than it was a few generations ago, the reality is the world of teenagers is much more difficult to navigate than anyone can imagine. The pervasive stress our teenagers experience is largely overlooked by parents and adults closest to them. Adults should not minimize the level of stress teenagers experience because we have not walked in their shoes for even one day. Though 13 Reasons Why might have over-dramatized the pervasive stress our teenagers are under, it does bring to light multiple layers of social pressures our students have to overcome. Being a teenager or an emerging adult is not for the faint of heart.
When our young people make poor choices, the Church must be a safe place for them to find love, concern and accountability. Without judgment and condemnation, the Church must catch our young people when they fall and place them back on their feet with the assurance of grace and love. After all, that is the message of the Gospel. The Church must become a mentoring community who looks out for the best interest of young people without an ulterior motive. Our role should be to provide physical, emotional and spiritual support for our teenagers while always pointing them to the cross of Jesus and the hope of the resurrection.
Finally, churches must begin openly conversing about the difficult issues of our culture in healthy ways that will equip our young people and their parents to successfully navigate these formative years. For too long, on one end of the spectrum, churches have stuck our heads in the sand and pretended that issues such as loneliness, depression, abuse, etc. simply do not exist. We hoped that if we didn’t mention it, it would simply go away. On the other end of the spectrum, churches have been a place of judgment enveloped by the Christian bubble. We have insulated ourselves from the world while being the morality police for people who are outside of the church. This must stop!
If we are going to even have a chance of reaching the millennials and the post-millennials in the church, we must learn to dialogue effectively about difficult topics and learn to properly apply the wisdom of Scripture to an upside-down world. While never compromising the truth of scripture, we must learn how to better communicate the unadulterated love of God for his people and his creation through the story of Jesus.
In Fuller Youth Institute’s latest research presented in Growing Young, one of the key principles in reaching young people is to take Jesus’ message seriously. Within the principle, Kara Powell, Brad Griffin and Jake Mulder suggest churches must experience three key shifts in how we communicate the message of Jesus: 1) Less talk about abstract belief and more talk about Jesus. 2) Less tied to formulas and more focused on a redemptive narrative. 3) Less about heaven later and more about life here and now. The way churches have communicated the gospel over the past twenty years have essentially lost much of the millennial generation. We must stem the tide by making significant shifts in how we engage our young people.
I’ve read some church leaders who have come out talking about the danger of 13 Reasons Why. Many are afraid the show glorifies teenage suicide, even justifying it to some degree, giving an unspoken permission for others to do the same. I agree that without the support of caring adults who are willing to help translate and decipher the emotions portrayed in the show, young people can misconstrue what the producers and the actors were hoping to get across. The social issues the series tackles in graphic ways are dangerous. Yet, this is the world our young people live in. To some degree, every one of our teenagers is faced with issues of sexual identity, bullying by their peers, search for personal identity and so much more. By simply warning our young people to not watch the show is to stick our head in the sand and ignore these issues. Rather, we should encourage our parents to watch the show with their “emotionally mature” youth and help them process what they are watching and the message the show is trying to present.
It’s time for the Church to be better than we’ve been in the past. It’s time we equip our parents to have meaningful conversations with their sons and daughters. It’s time we create a safe space in the church for our young people to express their doubts, fears and their hopes. It’s time we prioritize our young people and their families in the church in a way that is meaningful and supportive in 2017. We can do better. I can do better. Together we must better.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9, NIV)
 Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Youth, Family, and Culture) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 27-35.
 Ibid., 44-46.
 Ibid. 1.
 Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 92-96.
 Ibid., 99.
 American Psychological Association, “American Association Survey Shows Teen Stress Rivals That of Adults,” February 11, 2014, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress.aspx.
 Powell, Mulder, Griffin. 136.