Youth Ministry is a Risky Business

Reckless Risk-Taking

In my late teens, I was a reckless driver. I wasn’t a reckless individual, generally speaking; I was a responsible, straight-A student and a committed Christian. I drove with a wooden cross swaying from my rearview mirror as my little car rocked under the stress of high speeds.

Risky Business

On open stretches of four-lane highway, my speedometer pointed to three digits. On the winding back roads, I took delight in doubling the speed limit. I drove like this until I got my first speeding ticket at age 20. Lucky enough to get caught in a milder instance of speeding, I avoided a reckless driving charge.

The shame and expense of paying that speeding ticket sparked a sudden change in my driving habits. No longer was the reward of arriving sooner at a friend’s house worth the risk of being fined a 12-hour day’s wages. Although I had never driven recklessly while carrying passengers, I realized how fortunate I was not to have caused harm to myself or others on the road. After all, adolescents—despite enjoying the best physical health of the human lifespan—are three times likelier to die or sustain serious injuries from preventable incidents such as automobile accidents.

Risk, Dopamine, and Jesus

Daniel Siegel describes the neurobiology of adolescent risk-taking in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Penguin, 2015). In this accessible must-read for youth workers trying to understand what’s happening in adolescent minds, Siegel explains how we are drawn toward high-risk behaviors during adolescence more than at any other stage of life.

The culprit is the brain’s release of dopamine, which increases during puberty. More of this chemical is released in response to thrilling experiences, rewarding adolescents for taking risks. This results in greater impulsiveness, susceptibility to addiction and an overemphasis on the positive possibilities of an action. The greater the risk—the higher the release of dopamine—the greater the reward… which reinforces the risk-taking behavior. Until a negative outcome becomes reality, like in the case of my speeding ticket, adolescents will minimize the cons in favor of the pros of risky behavior.

Several months ago, I was reminded of this risky business while listening to an Advent sermon from my pastor, Rev. Lynn Parks. She framed the choices of Jesus’ parents in terms of risk. For Mary, a teenager, the risk was readily accepted. Mary said yes to God quickly, according to the birth narrative in Luke 1. But in Matthew 1, Joseph appears to undergo a great deal more consideration before he is willing to say yes to God’s call. Based on Jewish culture in first-century Palestine, Joseph was likely several years older than Mary, who was perhaps 14 or so at the announcement of her pregnancy. In reflecting on this sermon, it occurred to me that Mary’s reaction represents typical adolescent risk-taking; Joseph’s represents a post-adolescent calculated risk.

Reckless Optimism?

During my tenure as a youth pastor, I once preached my own Advent sermon on the annunciation of Mary and her response to the angel. The heart of this sermon featured three 14-year-old girls from the youth group sharing how they might have reacted if they had been in Mary’s place. Their honest responses revealed humility in being honored to carry the Messiah, an acknowledgement of fear and being ostracized, and a deep willingness to accept the risk based on positive outcomes. While they had the advantage of knowing the ultimate significance of Jesus’ birth, they reasoned through the risks with a clear focus on the reward.

I’ve often wondered, why did God choose Mary? I think it has a lot to do with dopamine. Mary had the ability to focus on positive outcomes, as we read in her song (Luke 1:46–55). She isn’t naïve; she is aware of the power dynamics in her society and her position as a young woman, but believes God will turn the tables. She has unwavering hope and expectation for what God will do through her.

Why did God choose Mary? I think it has a lot to do with dopamine.

Let me be clear: there’s quite a difference between the risk-taking behavior I described from my days of reckless driving, and Mary’s risk-taking choice to say yes to God’s plan. When God gives the mission, we are called to act in faith and wholeheartedly place our trust in positive outcomes—which may not necessarily seem positive according to the world’s judgment.

Joseph, for example, reasoned through the social implications of his choice to marry Mary, and in the end, he determined that saying yes to God was more important than negative social effects. Both Joseph and Mary were willing to accept immediate negative outcomes for the sake of the larger positive outcomes of God’s mission in the world.

What Could Go Right?

Just like the risks Mary and Joseph accepted with their roles in the birth of Jesus, being a follower of Jesus involves great risk. In Luke 14, Jesus admonishes the large crowds to count the cost before committing to being his disciples. He speaks of a builder and a warrior king who carefully consider the amount of risk they are undertaking and the potential outcomes (v. 28–32). This resembles Joseph’s process of following through with marriage to Mary. But it’s not like Mary was oblivious to the potential outcomes of saying yes to God’s risky proposal.

I am not suggesting that God manipulates us by catching us off guard, taking advantage of Mary’s brain development to con her into doing something she would not otherwise choose. Teens are usually well aware of the cons for risky behavior, but because of their increased dopamine levels, they focus more on the potential positive outcomes.

Because of this, adolescents are in a unique position to respond to God’s call. They are not unaware of negative outcomes. Rather, they have a special capacity to focus primarily on God’s redeeming vision without being distracted by the cost. Throughout Scripture, we see young people called to key roles in God’s mission. For example, while the age of Jesus’ apostles is unknown, scholars speculate that some of the twelve were probably teenagers. When Jesus calls them, like Mary, they respond with clarity and focus on what God is doing in the world.

Adolescents are in a unique position to respond to God’s call. They are not unaware of negative outcomes. Rather, they have a special capacity to focus primarily on God’s redeeming vision without being distracted by the cost.

Embracing Risky Business

As my pastor pointed out in her Advent sermon, Joseph’s yes depended on Mary’s yes. We might speculate that if Mary had rejected the role of carrying the Messiah, Joseph would never have had an opportunity to be faithful. When it comes down to it, Joseph’s ability to respond willingly to God depended on Mary giving her response first. I like to think that Joseph and Mary, with their different expressions of spirituality, were the ideal couple for raising Jesus. And there is something instructive here for the body of Christ.

What if we, as adults, need adolescents to reorient our focus on God’s mission in the world? So often, we become distracted by the costs that come with following Christ. Rather than considering the risk-taking spirituality of adolescents immature, what might happen if we cherished and cultivated it?

Following Jesus, after all, is an inherently risky business.

Maybe our faith communities need a little more dopamine.

About the Author: Sarah Ann Bixler

Sarah BixlerSarah Ann Bixler is a Ph.D. student in practical theology/Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she earned her Master of Divinity. She treasures her rich experiences with adolescents as a youth pastor, classroom teacher, youth program director, residence director and curriculum writer. Sarah lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband and three children.