It’s not often that you encounter people with the passion for youth of Peter Benson. His whole TED Talk titled ‘How youth thrive’ shows his love for young people and it encouraged me.
Peter Benson is not a youth pastor however; he’s a psychologist who does research amongst young people on their ‘spark’. By ‘spark’ he means a skill, a cause or a quality that makes people thrive, that makes them happy and whole.
In his talk, he shares some interesting statistics. Right now, there are 80 million young people aged 8-18 in the US. But only 25% of these 80 million are on a pathway to human thriving (meaning being happy, connected, kind, contributing, etc.) and the rest has fallen behind. They are lost, confused, medicated and alone. Those statistics should give anyone involved in youth work food for thought.
Youth are not vessels
Benson looks at the school system amongst others, stating how it is focused on control and getting good grades. It’s aimed at filling kids up with things we think they should know.
“Youth are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be lit.” (Plutarch)
The best development, Benson explains, is from the inside out, not from the outside in. We can’t fill up kids like vessels, we have to let them emerge. We have to help them develop their spark, nourish it.
I urge you to watch this video where he unpacks all this, because it’s fascinating. I also think there were important facts and observations for us as youth workers:
- Teens seem to have an intuitive knowledge about the concept of a spark, they recognize it in others
- What struck me was that teens indicated that ‘no one had ever asked them before about their spark’; they were blown away by Benson’s interest in them and what made them thrive. It shows once more how badly teens want to be seen and heard.
- The category of sparks most popular amongst teens was ‘Create of Life’, meaning music, dance, art, etc. This is where they experience life at its fullest. How are we adapting to this reality with our youth ministries?
The thriving formula
Benson has developed a ‘thriving formula’ that states how youth thrives:
Spark + 3 Champions + Opportunity
Basically it states that teens will thrive if they identify their spark, have at least three people in their family, school or broader community that supports them, and have the opportunity to nourish and develop their spark. We know this to be true, especially the ‘champions’ part. Youth need loving adults who will cheer them on.
This may bear little direct relation to discipling teens or sharing the Gospel. But I still see two useful and important applications for youth ministry:
- To those of us working with disadvantaged or unchurched youth, this may be a great approach to help them in a tangible way and see real results. I would think that we could help on all three: help youth identify their spark, become their champion and create or help them find opportunities.
- As Christians, the concept of spark may be very close to the idea of spiritual gifts in combination with a passion. I’ve seen youth use that spark for God’s Kingdom many times and it made them thrive (and the youth ministry as well by the way). We would do well to help youth identify their spark en their spiritual gifts, see how these relate and complement and help them find a place where they can put these to use.
Benson closes off with a statement that has really got me thinking:
“We should know our own sparks, because kids will want to know ours as well.”
Do you know your spark? What makes you thrive?