How Youth Ministry Is Undermining The Health Of Our Kids. . .

And so . . . I’m going to raise an issue that will stir the pot and might cause some trouble. . . about an issue that has gotten me in some personal trouble. And the more I’ve researched the trouble that I’ve gotten myself into, the more I see a need to speak up and ask some very hard questions. You see, if I had done things differently in my own adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond, my trouble now wouldn’t be my trouble now. Which has led me to conclude that those of us who are youth workers and parents are uniquely positioned. . . with power and a growing body of knowledge. . . to prevent what’s now happening to me and so many others. In addition, I wonder if we might be complicit as youth workers in causing the problem with the kids we know and love. Let me explain. . .

Two years ago this month, something started that has the potential drive me nuts. I started to hear a constant ringing in my left ear. Audiologists. . . who I have not consulted. . . know this as “Tinnitus.” I’m not alone in this. Experts say that at present, about 20 percent of people have it. I wonder how many more just haven’t reported it. . . and how many more will be getting it. For me, it sounds like someone is constantly blowing a high-pitched dog whistle in my ear without ever taking a breath. In fact, they haven’t taken a breath for two years. I’ve got a little bit of it in my right ear now as well. I hear it most when I go to bed in the silence of the night (so, I keep a fan running to mask it), and when I’m watching television. For the most part, I’ve been able to train my mind to ignore it. . . which is not the case for those  who have the severe kind of cases where they hear things like always-running chainsaws or even airhorns. . . to the point where some people take their own lives in an effort to find relief.

I was living with it and not thinking about it too much until a couple of months ago when I happened upon an episode of the NPR podcast Fresh Air, where host Terry Gross interviewed David Owen, author of the book Volume Control: Hearing In A Deaf World. The topic became a topic of interest for Owen, who is about my age, when he too developed Tinnitus and started to research the disorder. (I’ve since read the book and highly recommend it to every parent, pastor, and youth worker. . . even if you this isn’t you. . . because it is others).

It was an eye-opening interview. . . no pun intended. Something Owen said really got me thinking about my own younger years, the types of high-volume things I’ve done in youth ministry, and how we tend to literally pump-up-the-volume in today’s ministry world like never before. Owen said, “When we talk about age-related hearing loss, the assumption is that this is something that happens to old people. It is something that happens to old people – but it’s something that’s caused by the things that we do when we’re young.”

Yep. . . that was me. Turn it up! And that’s been me for the duration of my life. In my case, it’s mostly been music. There have been concerts that have left me waiting a couple of days to get my full hearing back. I’ve always been a headphones and now earbud guy. . . with listening time on the increase thanks to digital devices and bluetooth technology that have allowed me to curate my listening in very personal ways. The earbuds have already been in today. And, there have been decades of loud lawn mowers and other power tool/equipment use, all done without any kind of ear protection. It seems that whether in ignorance or not, I’m at fault here.

David Owen even talks about hair-dryers, blenders, and other devices that research is showing to have an effect. And not surprising, one sub-population dealing with hearing-loss of a variety of types along with constant ringing-in-the-ears are our veterans and hunters. It seems that explosive volleys and gun-fire (especially when weapons are held close to one’s head) have really done a long-term number on folks.

My blog post today was sparked as well by a recent Jane Brody piece in the New York Times: “For Better Brain Health, Preserve Your Hearing.” This article took my regrets, concerns, and resolve to a new level as Brody reports on research which is indicating that among other things, hearing loss is the largest modifiable risk factor for developing dementia. Did you read that? Modifiable. In other words, this is not something beyond our preventive control. These are factors that can be changed! And, in a stunning finding, Brody reports that hearing loss is an even greater risk factor than that of smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and social isolation. hearing loss afflicts nearly 38 million Americans, and is also a factor in depression, falls, and cardiovascular disease. Wow! PLEASE read Brody’s article.

And this is the point where we need to step back, look at the research, ponder the theological realities about the dignity and preservation of our God-given bodies, and then ask the question. . . a question that could lead to re-thinking and changing so much. . . “Is our high-decibel youth ministry and/or worship undermining the very human flourishing we endeavor to enable and promote?” And, “is our kids current high-volume regular use of ear-bud technology doing long-term damage that they won’t be aware of for quite some time?”

Just to clarify. . . this is not a question about old styles vs. modern styles. It is rather a question about adjusting the volume by adapting our methodologies in youth ministry and our larger corporate gatherings as God’s people so that what we are doing now does not result in physical brokenness later. And, should we as people in youth ministry – called to be prophetic in our teaching – put forth a deliberate ongoing effort to educate, challenge, and equip our students and their parents to adopt hearing practices now that are not undermining the gift of hearing (and everything that goes with that) as they age?

There’s a kind of nexus that’s converged in my life at this point to lead me to ponder these matters. My own personal experience is being gradually, in fact quickly, enlightened by a growing body of research that not only explains what’s happened to me, but could prevent the same from happening to our kids. And, as a Christian endeavoring to live an integrated life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and biblical authority, there are theological matters related to human flourishing that need to be reckoned with and pursued. This is for the life of the world and the good of the emerging generations. Perhaps you’ve heard it here first. Let’s keep listening.

Thoughts? And before commenting, please take some time to read Jane Brody’s piece.

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