BOOK REVIEWS: >Youth Leadership: A Guide to Understanding Leadership Development in Adolescents,
by Josephine A. Long and Carl I. Fertman. Jossey Bass, 243 pp, $25.00
Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, by William Finnegan. Random House, 481 pp., $26.00.
Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, By Tom Beaudoin. Jossey Bass, 210 pp., $22.00.
Three provocative books challenge our concept of youth ministry and question our
capacity to transmit the faith across generations. In Youth Leadership
Josephine Long and Carl I. Fertman take up a topic that many churches, schools
and other youth-serving organizations have ignored since the late 1960s. Long,
director of the Leadership Development Network at the University of Pittsburgh,
and Fertman, executive director of the Maximizing Adolescent Potentials Program
at the University of Pittsburgh, explore patterns of leadership in teenagers and
examine how leadership is nurtured.
The authors frame the discussion with two theoretical perspectives. The first
is that of developmental psychology, an approach that dominates the literature
on youth ministry. Drawing on the insights of Erik Erikson, Carol Gilligan and
others, Long and Fertman note that while young people begin to engage in leadership
at a very young age, their involvement intensifies rapidly as they move into the
teenage years. They are busy acquiring in- formation about leadership and forming
attitudes toward leadership in these years. They learn to communicate, make decisions
and manage leadership roles. The authors identify three distinctive stages in
this effort: awareness, in which youth self-consciously begin to identify ways
to function as leaders in various social contexts; interaction, in which they
explore and test their growing knowledge and skills of leadership; and mastery,
when they begin to develop a vision of themselves as leaders and take responsibility
for preparing to be leaders.
Long and Fertman's second theoretical perspective is drawn from the research of
E. P Hollander, J. M. Burns and J. V. Downton, which emphasizes leadership as
"transactions or exchanges" that take place between the leader and the one who
is led, as well as the transformation of "self-interests for the good of the group,
organization or society." The transactions are the skills and tasks associated
with leadership, while the transformation of self-interests describes the act
of leadership itself. From these two perspectives, the authors locate the impetus
to leadership in the developing capacities of teenagers, who respond to the situations
in which they find themselves and practice leadership.
The task of developing youth leaders is a matter of creating environments that
will nurture capacities for leadership. This changes the role of adult leaders.
Instead of teaching people to be leaders, they are to nurture
their potential for leadership. Parents become partners to youth leadership efforts,
while teachers and other adults "support," "empower" and "facilitate" their developing
The authors suggest ways to create these conditions and give examples of leadership-nurturing
environments. They challenge the value of youth ministries that don't meet these
conditions, including those that isolate teenagers from children and adults in
the congregation, those that emphasize entertainment, and those that prefer charismatic
adults who direct youth over adults who nurture youth capacities.
The youth in Youth Leadership are familiar to most church people.
They are active in school and community, live at home with at least one parent
and accept the basic values and perspectives of society's dominant social institutions.
We are not familiar, however, with the young people we encounter in Cold
New World. William Finnegan introduces us to disenfranchised young people
whose families seem overwhelmed. Schools do not hold these young people's attention.
Their skills do not translate into success in the job market. With the exception
of some rural African-American youth, these youths find the institutional church
irrelevant. Yet many of the deepest issues of their lives are inherently religious,
especially when they are trying to make some sense out of the violence and hostility
Finnegan presents the lives of African-American young people in a New Haven neighborhood
through the eyes of a teenage drug dealer. He presents Mexican-American youth
in Washington State who struggle with the experience of immigration, and white
supremacist Anglo-American youth in the Los Angeles suburbs. All of these youth
are experiencing the downward economic movement of their families; all of them
have had repeated encounters with direct, overt and systemic violence.
Finnegan researched this book by living with these young people. He ate with them,
attended their gatherings, interviewed family members and community, business
and school leaders who touched their lives. He re- turned to visit the youths
over the course of his research, and on several occasions intervened in their
Despite the grimness and violence of their stories, the youth reveal their resilience
and their capacity for tenderness and compassion. I found myself hoping that these
young people would find a way to improve their situation, give some socially acceptable
response or find enough institutional or personal support to escape the downward
spiral of their lives. It does not happen. Their environments do not contain the
resources to alter this tragic course. And most of our congregations are unaware
of or inattentive to their quests for meaning and place.
The young people in Virtual Faith represent another group that has
had little contact with the church--GenXers, or those middle-class, educationally
successful young people born between 1961 and 1981. This book is a generational
autobiography of their quest for religious meaning. According to Tom Beaudoin,
a GenXer and theology student, the distinguishing feature of the GenX experience
is the influence of the images and values of television and popular music.
Wade Clark Roof observes that Beaudoin "takes us on a romping, eye-opening voyage
through GenX culture--its music, its fashion, its imagery, its spiritual quests."
Many readers will consider that culture to be not only irreverent, but sacrilegious.
It turns the authority of tradition upside down, relativizes religious imagery
and symbols, and celebrates theological ambiguity. Beaudoin contends that unlike
previous generations of students and young adults, who contested secular culture
with critiques found in religious tradition (Beaudoin's mentor Harvey Cox would
be one good example), he and his peers embrace pop culture as the primary source
of and catalyst to faith. They then turn to religious traditions to confirm, support
and energize symbols and myths.
Beaudoin models the "ministry imagination" he espouses by leaping back and forth
between the religious themes of an MTV clip and the exegesis of a biblical passage.
This, he says, is the GenXer's way of nurturing "virtual faith." By this term
he means that "Xers live religiously in real ways (involving real faith, real
practice and a real spiritual journey)," while simultaneously imitating "real
faith and real practice, simulating what they expect institutional religion and
real religiousness to be." They want both the "real thing" and an "imitation"
of the real thing--the "genuine and the posture, the authentic and the artificial."
The GenXer is suspicious of institutions, especially religious institutions. He
focuses on personal experience in the spiritual quest, and on a sense of suffering
expressed in a psychological and spiritual crisis of meaning. The GenXer also
accepts the ambiguity that may be found in the fusion of sacred and profane, spiritual
and sensual, orthodox and blasphemous in popular culture. He does not reject or
dismiss faith tradition or religious institutions, but they are not the only sources
of spirituality. The implications are clear: If traditional Christianity is to
engage the spiritual quest of the GenXer, it must attend to the ways in which
these young adults draw on the church and popular culture.
Read together, the three books suggest that the range and diversity of youth and
young adult experience in the U.S. is much broader and more diverse than is evident
in most congregational ministries. The labels we use-- "youth culture," the "silent
generation" of my own college years, or "GenXer"--do not describe the experience
of many youth and young adults. The teenagers in Youth Leadership
and the GenXers in Virtual Faith have possibilities that are distant
to the young people in Cold New World. While the racism and classism
that weigh heavily on Finnegan's youth may represent intellectual or political
issues for some of Beaudoin's GenXers, it hardly catches the attention of the
youth that Long and Fertman describe. The teenagers they describe do not share
the suspicion or disregard of institutions--including the church--that is found
among GenXers and the disenfranchised young people in Cold New World.
The traditional values, symbols and practices that provide the context for nurturing
youth leadership for Long and Fertman function only as backdrop for the imaginative
reconstructions of pop culture undertaken by Beaudoin's peers, and they may generate
negative self-images for Finnegan's youth.
Our lack of attention to the range and diversity of the experience of youth and
young adults inevitably limits our capacity to speak truthfully and faithfully
to these people. Consequently, many simply do not find a welcoming place in the
We have left the task of defining what it means to be a youth to the youth themselves.
As a result, they are picking and choosing images, symbols and values from media,
religious and other social institutions, as they try to produce meaning for and
give shape to their lives. In this process, the church becomes another boutique
in the shopping mall of options for personal and group identity.
We have also abandoned the notion of the interdependence of the generations in
congregational life. Few adults see themselves engaged in a communal effort to
sponsor, nurture and mentor young people. Indeed, few pastors identify this as
a central role in their ministry.
A 1984 study found that few teenagers in an affluent suburban high school had
an adult--other than their parents--with whom they could discuss important matters.
Another study found that 70 percent of high school students are "generally ignored
and poorly served"--i.e., "unspecial" in the system. Adults are certainly present
in the lives of young people. But the well-intentioned parents, grandparents,
teachers and social workers in Cold New World are unable to create
environments that nurture socially acceptable norms and practices; meanwhile,
many of the parents de- scribed by Finnegan and Beaudoin acquiesce to the dominant
role of television and media in their children's lives.
Mentoring in youth ministry tends to be individualistic rather than communal or
strategic. Youth ministry literature has not yet challenged the practice of letting
youth ministries be directed by adults. Long and Fertman need to emphasize the
reciprocity of youth and adults--of possibility and experience, imaginative exploration
and wise reflection--in the leadership development of the group or community.
Youth need to be viewed as full members, and challenged accordingly
The churches need critical perspective on the influence of contemporary media
and the values of consumer capitalism. The authors of these three works document
the pervasiveness of consumer capitalism and media in defining the young people's
experience. These forces may take diverse forms: the market economy of the "drug
culture" and the appeal of the violence in the "media culture" in Finnegan's study,
the MTV "pop culture" for Beaudoin's GenXer, or the middle-class values implicit
in the patterns of leadership promoted by Long and Fertman. Common in each book
are themes of individualism, competition, ambition and success, and consumption.
Fashion, entertainment and possessions are identity markers for the youth in all
these books--although the object of consumption varies. The youth of Cold
New World may have little vision of their participation in a democratic
society, but they certainly do see themselves as full participants in a consumer
culture. The "irreverent spirituality" of Beaudoin's GenXers more easily aligns
itself with Newt Gingrich's anti-institutional vision of economic well-being than
with the ecological visions of justice and stewardship of the earth.