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Middle school was the worst!

It was an awkward time of voice changes (for guys), odd height differentials (for girls), and pimples (for everybody). For me, it was one of the first times I can remember really wanting to be liked and accepted. Sure, in elementary school I wanted to have friends – but in middle school, the level of self-awareness skyrocketed and suddenly every outfit, word, and step was calculated for maximum affirmation.

In a lot of ways, I still carry that middle-school mentality with me. I want to be liked and affirmed. I want people to say good things about me and desire my friendship. I get self-conscious when someone doesn’t text back right away or seems like they might be upset. I even censor myself and my words when perhaps I shouldn’t.

Sometimes, that attitude does keep me out of trouble. But sometimes, it prevents me from evangelization.

Unpopular

In middle school, I was the unpopular kid. I sat alone at lunch or had to beg a group of people to let me sit with them. When I did, it was at the expense of being made fun of and becoming the butt of their jokes. That period of life put a deep fear of being unpopular in my life. Eventually, I grew out of that awkward stage and made a solid group of friends. Still, that fear remained.

Fast forward ten years to an evening in my parish office planning an upcoming semester. I looked over the Life Nights for “Morality,” and shook my head. The topics were tough, and the Church’s opinion about them was not popular. I had flashbacks to middle school. We just began growing our youth ministry and teens really enjoyed coming. We had about 60 teenagers that attended regularly. I got so much affirmation from parents and teenagers – if I started talking about topics that were unpopular they might all get angry. Teenagers might stop coming. I would lose my job and have to go work at a McDonald’s. Then all of the teenagers would come into McDonald’s and make fun of me.

I really had it thought out, well.

I put the morality semester away. We did a semester on the sacraments, instead.

Issue Nights and Fear

Through the semester about the sacraments, things went well. Teenagers enjoyed the content, and our numbers remained solid. But then I started to get feedback.

“We want more nights about controversial topics.”

“We want to know what the Church teaches about abortion and stuff like that.”

“Is pre-marital sex OK? Can we talk about that? What about my gay friends, what does the Church say about them?”

Pretty soon, teens started to come sporadically. The message wasn’t meeting them where they were at anymore. They needed us to speak into these issues, and we were missing the point because I feared becoming unpopular.

From the Cistern

The first reading from this past Sunday (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10) sums up my worst fears – being thrown into a giant well because my teaching is unpopular. Well, the “giant well” is really more figurative than literal, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It can be frightening to proclaim the truth of the Church in a world that seems to reject it. Jeremiah proclaimed repentance and judgment to the people and they rejected him harshly.

That fear can drive our programming, even our conversations. It is uncomfortable to respond to a teenager that asks a tough question. We want them to know the love of Christ, but love and truth need to go hand in hand. Often, it isn’t our desire for a teen to feel loved that prevents us from giving them truth – it is our insecurity about being un-liked, made fun of, or even mocked.

In a world where “likes,” “shares,” “favorites,” and “follows” matter so much, saying the wrong thing or aligning ourselves with the wrong message seems terrifying. Jesus tells us that the Gospel is radical, that it will even split families apart (Luke 12:53). If we aren’t facing some opposition, we need to check the message we are proclaiming.

God is faithful to us, though, when we proclaim that message. Jeremiah was rescued from the cistern, and we will be rescued, as well. I’ve found that when I give teenagers the truth of the Church and Christ – even if it is unpopular, they at least wrestle with it and at most are convicted by it. Conversions happen. But when I play it safe, everyone feels happy, but hearts are rarely moved. We are called to be bold and go beyond the middle school mentality of affirmation. Our hope is in the name of God. Our affirmation is in our call to discipleship and ministry. Our reward isn’t a lot of “likes” or “favorites,” it is hearts that are moved – starting with our own.

About the Author

Joel Stepanek

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.) Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @LT_Jstepanek.