Interview with Dr. 'Chap' Clark

Maintaining a steady stream of youth leaders has been an on-going challenge for churches in this post-modern era. Repeated statistics show that two of three church-going teenagers will leave the church by the time they graduate college.

Dr. Chapman Clark is a leading figure within the youth ministry field. As an Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary "Chap" Clark has played a key role in developing the Fuller Institute of Youth Ministries.

He is also a prolific writer, who visits about 15 cities a year.

In his book "Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers," Clark details the problems revolving around today's youth.

The following are excerpts from an Aug. 12 interview with Clark:

According to various sources, your book was based on extensive research conducted at Crescenta Valley High School in Los Angeles County. Can you share with the readers what inspired you to step out of the office to conduct this field study?

"It wasn't just at the high school. I did an extensive ethnography, a form of qualitative research, and followed more than the protocol on ethnology. So it is grounded on very solid research - not based on just a few months with a few kids in LA.

I think this is very important because there are some people who have become defensive about my conclusion – like Christian Smith from North Carolina. He and I, at least in the last year, are the leading researchers on where the adolescents are. Because my book is pushing against the status quo and saying we have a big problem, mainstream media is not jumping on, but the research was very solid. It followed and exceeded the protocol of qualitative research.

Now, what made me believe? It’s because, I am 50 now and I have been working with high school kids for almost 30 years. As a professor for the last 15 years, I have made a commitment to stay deeply involved in direct ministry with kids, and I was noticing subtle shifts with the students at my church and Young Life club. I am also around college students all of the time all around the country and in different parts of the world too.

And, I was reading so many different contents saying where kids are, and how they are - like the latest Time magazine says 13-year-olds are less likely to engage in unkempt behavior, and they are doing better. I read all this time, yet I am working with kids. I don’t think these guys are right!

Except for Patricia Hersch, who wrote a great book called “A Tribe Apart,” and David Elkind, who is a child psychologist, almost no one was studying where the kids really are – getting under the skin of surface data.”

As you are likely to be aware, there have been many reviews done on your book. One review stated that it is credible to say that adults play a major part in a youth’s development. However, it is the youth who is responsible for the decisions he or she makes in life. What do you feel about this point?

"My comment is that it is a great defense for adults.

There is an example of a seventh-grader who engaged in sexual-intercourse with 15 guys in two weeks. This is a story I heard recently about a suburban Christian seventh-grader who engages in this kind of activity because she feels that it is no big deal. Sure, she is responsible.

She is in trouble. She ought to be disciplined. She is in trouble.

Granted, sexual intercourse seems to be down. Pregnancy numbers are down, but sexual activities are off the charts.

So that is where we got a look at the data behind the data. Kids are extremely sexually active. Marijuana usage is way up, even though they are not saying it. Kids are drinking and driving fast. Kids are violent, lying, cheating.

They have to be responsible, but what I am trying to point out is, what is this environment that created or nurtured such a wide-ranging rebelliousness and ethic of lying and deception across the board?

Almost every single kid says lying is okay under circumstances. Lying and deception are okay as long as doing that protects them.

They are wrong, but what have we done to create an environment that teaches them that it is not ok for what they do? Once we take responsibilities as adults, we can place more accountability on the kids. We have to start looking at the mirror right now because we are blaming the kids for bad behavior."

As a ministry leader for 25 years, the author of many books, and a professor at Fuller's youth program your comment that today’s teens are in trouble is compelling. So, what is the next step needed in addressing this problem?

"I am trying get the adults to wake up. Most of the book is focus on how we can help our kids. Once we diagnose the problem, the solution is much easier and cleaner. The solution is for adults to act like adults. So it means teachers, and parents, and youth workers need to start looking at kids not as problems and something to throw money and activities at, but as young individuals who need all the nurturing and care we can give them.

Once adults start recognizing that all these kids need them to take care of them regardless of behavior or attitude, we will be okay.

In my experience, even five years ago, you needed to have a five-to-one ratio to do youth ministry. What that meant was five kids to one adult, but we turned the whole thing upside down.

But every young person the church considers one of their own ought to have at least five adults who knows their name and prays for them, who does whatever it takes to make sure they navigate adolescence to become healthy adults embraced by their community.

The church has gotten into the mode where we hire a few youth workers and enlist a few volunteers, and we send them off. We’ve done the same thing we do at ‘Little League’ and school. We've set up youth ministry as a separate, fragmented entity, instead of recognizing that youth ministry ought to be the assimilation of these kids into our community.

Instead of worrying if eighth-graders are wearing hats to church, we should worry if the elders are praying for them. So that’s the solution. The church has to lead the way in recapturing the kids."

You have been involved with youth ministry for almost 30 years now. Based on your experiences, have most youth ministries taken adequate steps in addressing the problem in the youth for the last 30 years?

"There has been some really great things that happened. In the last three decades, there has been a heightened awareness in youth ministry. There has been a greater awareness for churches to have something for kids. There has been a huge increase in the academic preparations for youth ministry. More than a hundred Christian colleges offer youth ministry classes and programs. Most of the seminaries do too. Youth ministry is now seen as a valid field for one to devote his life. This is great.

I believe where we need to adjust are two major areas. One, we need to recognize that the culture has changed. We need to think more theologically deeper about what we are doing with kids. We are still doing the same things we did 30 years ago. Instead, we need to think how to adjust our programs and methodology to the goal of assimilating kids into the larger body of Christ. Historically, the goal of youth ministry has always been to get kids to become faithful Disciples of Christ, but we have been shallow in following that message from the Book of Matthew. To be a faithful disciples means to walk in the steps, and that you are the part of the family of God. We have ignored that aspect of discipleship in youth ministry. It has become a ‘me and Jesus’ thing, and so we graduate literal spiritual orphans out of our programs.

The second thing is that we have not done a great job is recognizing how the culture has hurt kids. The culture is where the hurt comes from. We have contributed to the abandonment of kids. For example, if normally we have 20 kids in a youth group and 12 show up, we ask, where is everybody? And the 12 think, 'The reason why I matter is because I am part of your program.' They have been wounded and hurt in every place they’ve gone, and we want to put them through our machine for youth ministry, instead of realizing we are the arms of Christ embracing these kids where they are. We need to care far more about the individual needs of kids, and realize the programs are tools and not the ends."

How are the pastors of churches in some way responsible for the condition of the youth?

"I was a pastor for two and half years until this summer. At least, I have been on that side of the fence. I understand the pressures pastors are under and the difficulties there are to please everybody, but that does not relieve them of their responsibilities to hang to the full theology. Pastors are absolutely accountable for making sure the young are cared for.

A lot of pastors know that they must have a youth ministry because the parents are happy when they do. A lot of pastors care about youth because it makes parents happy, but Pastors have to think theologically for their community. This also applies to the elderly."

"How about the Sunday School teachers and others involved with youth ministry?"

“Part of the problems is not to give them the title ‘teacher.’ Children do not need another person in life to lecture to them. The church isn't about teaching. It is about passing the tradition. What teachers need to do is get off the podium and meet with the kids. We have to recognize the goal of teaching, which is for kids to engage their minds with Scripture so that the Holy Spirit can transform them. We call this contact work. They have to build this relationship of trust with the kids."

And how should Christians, in general, take the initiative in addressing this problem?

"They need to follow the great commission, and go to make disciples. We focus on making disciples, but we must go.

Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ Interestingly, we just focus on making disciples. We should actually, go out and make disciples. We have to go."

Lastly, what inspired you to pursue a lifelong career in youth ministries?"

"It got started because I met Christ in high school because someone paid attention to me. I was from Young Life. There is an honesty that the youth can feel, and they like that I have never walked far from kids, though I did adult ministry some time ago.

I felt that to build God's Kingdom, we must go to the kids. I can make high school kids laugh. I try to do them a favor and try to help them to be comfortable. That is a sacred honor God has entrusted to me."