Mental Incompetents or Free Moral Agents?

About seven years ago, Toronto Patterson went to his aunt’s house to steal the wheels off her BMW. In order to get into the garage he had to shoot his aunt. In order to get away with the murder he had to shoot his two cousins, aged 6 and 3. Late in August, Patterson was executed by the state of Texas. An unusual aspect of this thoroughly tragic story is the last minute appeal filed by Patterson’s attorney. Based on a recent Supreme Court ruling that mentally retarded people cannot be executed because of their diminished capacity for moral decision making, his lawyer suggested that Patterson, age 17 at the time of the murders, was not a mature person and thus similarly diminished in his ability to make moral decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the appeal by a vote of 6-3. I truly wonder about those three judges who accepted the argument.

Contrast this idea with those expressed by Alvin Reid in our feature on youth ministry and adolescence. Professor Reid makes a thought-provoking point. People, even teenagers, need to be stretched in their spiritual growth and service. He believes that the potential of the current generation of young people may be lost to churches if we don’t start taking them more seriously. There is an observable trend away from treating teenagers like young adults in our churches. Whether the trend comes from the relative prosperity and safety of our day or some anemic version of the seeker movement, it kicks the middle out of effective youth ministry.

For whatever reason, churches today make too much of the difference between a high school senior and a working high school grad, 18 year old. In stark contrast, I’ve always wondered at the degree of responsibility our fathers and grandfathers accepted at a young age. It’s hard to compare their experience of youth with mine or that of my children. They, kindly, attempted to shelter me from the hardships they faced. I in turn, and no less kindly, attempt to shelter my children from the small disappointments of my younger years. I cannot escape the nagging fear that we go too far in protecting our children. More to the point, I think we treat them like children too long. While there are aspects of earlier, harder times we would never want to experience, history tells us that young people can handle more personal responsibility than we usually give them today.

I don’t advocate lowering the legal age of drinking or driving or even voting in civil elections. Mature young people lack experience and judgment that accumulates rapidly after leaving home. This acquiring of wisdom is acknowledged in the different levels of responsibility given to young people at different ages by law. I do agree with those who think that churches lag behind in teaching teenagers to be mature Christians and church members, though. I don’t, for example, know of anything my son has received in youth ministry that took as much time or required as much work as the state-mandated drivers’ education course. Which is more important? Which is more difficult?

We don’t teach maturity by segregating teenagers from adults in worship and all church activities. We don’t teach maturity by talking down to them as though they cannot grow in faith even as they grow intellectually. Some might protest that teenagers find adult worship boring and adults find youth-oriented worship irreverent. Both points are valid. The remedy is to stop conducting boring worship and preaching boring sermons. Both are the product of laziness or thoughtlessness. Neither should worship be irreverent or silly, regardless of the target audience. This may result from a condescending attitude toward the ability of teenagers to grasp varied styles of spiritual devotion.

Partly I’m suggesting a return to the concept of family in the church. In a family, children learn how to talk to adults by dealing with parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They learn how to deal with peers by their relationships with siblings and cousins. The idea that kids should spend all their time at school and church among only kids in their age grouping is relatively novel and suspect. Youth ministries must avoid being so attuned to the felt needs of children and parents that they take away the community aspect of the whole body of Christ. I’m grateful for the adults who spend personal time teaching and discipling my kids through our youth ministry. I’m grateful for the opportunities they have to play with other kids in a safe and wholesome environment. This can be done without creating an artificially segregated model of the church. It can be done while treating my teen-aged kids as responsible members of the church.

I recognize that the defense lawyer in Toronto Patterson’s case was not proposing a developmental theory so much as trying desperately to save his client. On the other hand, he would never have suggested that spacemen or ghosts were responsible for the murders; he was proposing an idea he thought might work in our day. No one would have tried it forty years ago. He certainly could have never talked three Supreme Court justices into affirming the theory forty years ago.

The degree to which 17 year olds are mentally incompetent today can be blamed on the fact that we still treat them as people who have no responsibility for their actions. It is not nature that makes them that way but nurture. Of course if we treat them like incompetents, they will be less able to make moral and spiritual decisions. Whatever good reasons we may find for the notion of adolescence as a unique stage of development, we’ve overreacted. We teach our young people to behave in ways only acceptable for that narrow age range. They learn to expect adult privileges with very few adult responsibilities. If we teach our children this lesson, they will find it false in a post-high school environment.

Let’s seek ways to challenge our children to spiritual growth and involve them in our churches as responsible members. Bring them to business meetings. Teach them to serve the body of Christ in appropriate ways. Provide challenging discipleship training and walk them through it. Remember that they are part of today’s church and tomorrow’s leadership. Think of them also as the deacons, teachers, pastors, and missionaries of the near future. Unless they fall into the 88 percent of churched young people who quit after high school, they will be those church leaders.

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