I have three amazing children. I never knew how scary the world could be until I became a parent.

When I was single or just married, the world was my playground and I had free reign in it. But something happens when you become a parent — the world becomes a place where germs and sharp objects lay. You spend the majority of your time preparing for the coming of your first child by reading books about parenting, “baby proofing” your house, and ensuring that everything that could possibly injure or harm them or get possibly broken is moved to a safe location. That moment when you bring your child home, there is this sense of obligation and duty to safeguard this little human against the ills of the world.

One day I read an article about the marketing trends in the world of teenage clothing and undergarments. As a parent it struck a chord with me, I went into “parent protecting” mode; I began to think about the things I would want to tell my daughters when they were faced with the difficult situations of adolescence. I did not want their hardest decision to be whether someone would like or accept them by the underwear they were wearing. I did not know what to do; I was concerned and upset thinking about the ills that lie in hiding right under my nose. Who knew that parenting would be this way? This wasn’t in any of the parenting books or blogs.

I put digital pen to digital paper and penned a letter calling for girls and boys to be seen for who they are not for who some group of marketers think they should be; I posted it to my website, Facebook and Twitter. Nearly 4 million views and a couple national interviews later, I knew that I had stuck a chord with parents all over the world. Parents flooded my inbox and my social media accounts. They echoed my concern and they too were challenged by what to do next.

So many questions arose from this experience: Shouldn’t our adolescents be faced with different struggles? How can we empower them to do great things? Where is the church’s role in the midst of this? What can I do as a parent? How can I, a youth worker, help parents navigate this?

One unique aspect of the church is its connection to people throughout their life cycle. We celebrate when children are born, presented, dedicated/baptized. We shout “Hallelujah” when a child gets confirmed or makes a public declaration of their faith. The community fosters theological growth and education so that the faith that we hold so dear will be passed to the next generations. We as parents help to guide, form and shape this theological understating in the way that we act, speak and prioritize our lives.

The church does a good job at speaking to the basic tenets, beliefs and practices of the faith for young people. They hear the parables of Jesus, see them acted out, wonder about the creation of the world and participate in the life of the church. There is a gap, in my opinion, that exists between the church and the world that exists outside of its walls.

The church is not speaking to the problems and concerns that are constantly bombarding teens today. And, is the church really equipping parents to speak into this marketing trend? If the church is not willing or able to speak to needs of the community then what good are they?

There are competing voices that are plaguing the ears of so many young people. The voices are telling them that who they are now or who they want to become is not good enough. You are either in or you are out. There is always something more to be done, to fix, to change or manipulate. While there may not be some magic seven-step formula that is equally applied to all communities of faith, there is, however, a thread that connects us all together, we are children of God and this means something. Our communities need to be a place where God’s acceptance is shown in a radical and profound way, something different than what the world is offering. The church however has not been the place where these conversations have taken place.

Churches are great at doctrine and moral teaching but at times can miss opportunities to speak to the concerns and needs of their communities.

The struggle of adolescence is hard enough with hormones, changing bodies and being stuck between a kid and an adult. Why are we adding to this problem with accepting and even promoting stereotypes, messages and body images that are not attainable for 99.99% of the human population? Surely if God is able to be the God of all people, then why are we all trying to look the same? What happened to that understanding that we are all made in God’s image?

The Never-Ending Cycle

Culture (especially with regards to teenagers) is driven heavily by trends centered around the notion that there is always something that can be changed, modified and/or “fixed.” This creates within teens an understanding that they are not a beautiful creation of God rather a piece of clay that will constantly need work.

Woven throughout the Biblical record we see time after time the ways that God is able and willing to use people who are less than stellar. Why is this message being lost? Many biblical characters had their flaws, but God was able to see past them. God uses people of all varieties to proclaim the message of God’s love and peace to the world. This simple message cannot get lost in the hustle of programming and outreach.

How can parents reclaim this?

A Parent’s Response

The image of God is not something that we can take for granted; it is a deeply theological and profound thing to say that we as humans are molded, formed, created and shaped in the image of God. Everything about our lives, our self-esteem, our concepts of God changes when we accept and believe that fact that God loved and cares for you so much and God made you just the way you are.

We know that images and marketing are in your face and distort the human form, and, in this midst of these messages, the church has been silent.

We must do better.

For parents this can be a difficult thing to wrestle.  Parents are the first line of defense of sorts. They are the ones who witness every moment regardless if it is happy or heartbreak.

Parents, however, cannot navigate this alone.

The church needs to be the place where teens come to find rest from the world and safety to be themselves. What would our churches look like if we took off the masks that society asks us to wear and just be who God wants us to be?

There are however a few things that parents can do be proactive in this struggle between the world and our children.

Awareness

Parents need to be aware of the images that are surround their teenagers. You do not have to look far to see women and men digitally enhanced to look a particular way. This awareness does not mean that you have to be hypervigilant rather once you start to notice you will see that these images are everywhere. Encourage parents to start conversations with their children about how they see themselves and how society wants them to be seen.  Youth workers can help by creating spaces for conversation with regard to body image and the Bible.  This connect will allow teens to begin to think about the messages around them by society and how the teachings of the scriptures can conflict. Stories such as Jonah running the wrong way, Pete denying Christ and Moses killing an Egyptian reinforces that God is able to use those who are imperfect for greater things in God’s Kingdom.

Awkward Conversations

Parents need to have awkward conversations about sexuality, beauty and body image. These will be odd, awkward and sometimes strained, but they are important. Humanity today has access to more information than any other time in human history, but with the information we find more questions and social ideals. How children of all ages perceive this is paramount to having these conversations. Some guidelines to follow:

  • Be intentional (this is not a conversation to have on the way to baseball practice)
  • Be honest
  • Be open to what you are going to here
  • Be gracious with your responses
  • Keep the dialogue open about your thoughts and feelings; make this a two way street.

They’re Beautiful

Give parents tools to express their kids beauty back to them. Remember the struggle of being a kid, the agony of trying to “fit in” or looking “good” for that special someone and then multiply that tenfold. As a parent we are called to be a stable point in the rocky sea of life. I describe parenting as snow globe with a house in it. If you shake up the snow globe the water and the glitter swirl around but if you look closely the house or figure remains still. Parents need to be the house; the quiet, strong refuge that children can retreat to in the midst of chaos, struggle and grief. Try as we might we cannot stop or end all pain but we can be a fortress of grace, peace and love for our children when they need it the most.

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Talk About Your Struggles

Parents have a great lens in which they see the world. Parents have made mistakes, suffered through trials and even conquered fear. Teens today need to hear the stories of parents about their growing up. While there may be cultural and technological differences at the core of it all, adolescence is still adolescence. Today we might not name everything the same but the tension of being a teenager still exists. Being open about your life, your feelings as a teenager can help to frame the situation a teen is going through not just as an isolated event but as one that has effected people for years. This takes vulnerability on the parents part but it can open the door to deeper and more personal conversations about growing up and navigating the waters of life.

Parenting is not easy and maybe parenting in the 21st century is even harder. Not all is lost however; parents, the church and ministers working together can help forge a way through the ups and downs, the hills and valleys of life.  Parents must reclaim our imperfections, not as items that go against a social construct but something that helps students understand who they were created to be. The church must help them understand that they are beautiful, wonderful, children of God. Youth workers must reclaim identity from society. With all three parts working together parents will be empowered, youth will be shown they are more than a construct society gives them and the story of God’s goodness and God’s unique creation will be shared and taken to heart.

No longer will we allow the degradation of the self to be tolerated with the confines of the church. The story of God is greater than that, the story of humanity’s creation is more important than that.

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About The Author

rev-evan-dolive-head-shot-9-3-2014-taken-by-lee-mims-c-2014

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves in Longview, Texas. His first book Seeking Imperfection: Body Image, Marketing, and God was published in August 2015 by The Pilgrim Press. For more information about Rev. Evan visit www.evandolive.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RevEvanDolive.