Chap Clark has been one of the most respected and well-known voices in the world of youth and family ministry for my entire youth ministry career. So, the youth ministry world took note when this veteran youth worker and teacher took a sabbatical to substitute teach in a high school to gain additional insight into the lives of midadolescents (high school teenagers, roughly ages 14 to 18). The result of that sabbatical was the publication of Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers in 2004. Clark’s thesis is that today’s midadolescents are the victims of systemic abandonment by the adults in their lives, and have created their own world (what Clark calls “the world beneath”) to protect themselves from the effects of this pervasive neglect. In Part 1 of Hurt, Clark sets the stage for the book’s premise by presenting abandonment as “the defining issue for contemporary adolescents” and introducing us to “the world beneath.” The world beneath is where Part 2 of the book takes place, as Clark takes the reader on a journey into the lives of the contemporary adolescent’s world – peers, school, family, sports, sex, busyness and stress, ethics and morality, and the party scene. In Part 3, Clark offers his personal observations on what adolescents need and on strategies to turn the tide of systemic abandonment.
My own work with teenagers has brought me to many of the same conclusions as Clark, but I must be quick to point out that both his research and mine were completely anecdotal. Clark’s findings are not the result of any longitudinal research study, but rather the result of conversations he held with students over the course of a year in a suburban high school in which he was employed as a substitute teacher. I’m not trying to be dismissive of his findings. I have a lot of respect for Clark and for his years of work with students, parents and youth workers. As I mentioned, his findings correspond well with much of what I have also found as a youth worker and parent. I think that Clark’s findings are best seen in conjunction with Christian Smith’s landmark longitudinal study of teens, published one year later in the book Soul Searching. Indeed, the publication of these two books has ignited a spirited debate in the youth ministry world, as Christian Smith did not find as much angst in his research as Clark notes in his. What both men agree on, and what my own anecdotal evidence supports as well, is that students are hungry for relationships with significant adults who have largely abandoned them and left them to fend for themselves. Instead of debating which research is more accurate, parents, youth workers and teachers would do well to consider the research of both Clark and Christian Smith and look for ways to reach out to the midadolescents under their care with love and genuine community.