Adolescent Humor and Its Use on REAP Team Retreats
By Paul Masek, Coordinator of the REAP Team
Why This Document?
On rare occasions (less than two percent of our retreats), adult leaders from parishes and schools that utilize the services of the REAP Team have questioned the appropriateness of our use of adolescent humor. And, since we take all constructive criticism of this ministry quite seriously, this document will attempt to explain the key reasons why the REAP Team prefers to use adolescent humor in our ministry with teens.
The Use of Humor in Retreat Ministry
As you know, if you have ever seen the REAP Team in action, we attempt to utilize humor as one of the methods in our ministry to teens. One significant reason we use humor is that many teens come to a retreat with a preconceived notion that a retreat (and faith, Church and even God) are ‘boring and stupid'. In our experience, humor disarms this notion, and breaks down the walls that are in the hearts of so many teens, since it is nearly impossible to think of anything as boring and stupid if you are laughing and having fun. Also, we want to communicate to teens that people who love God and are into their faith can also be normal - we can laugh and have fun and be silly, since many teens (and even some adults) believe that faith and fun are mutually exclusive. Finally, we have found that humor engages people, and that laughter opens up people's hearts. There have even been scientific studies that indicate that laughter is a healing force and can be therapeutic. We find in our ministry a direct correlation between the amount of laughter and fun on a retreat and students' ability to get serious, deep, and make a commitment to Jesus Christ, His Teachings, and His Church.
No Negative Humor
In the explanation at the beginning of a REAP retreat, we make it clear that we are on a crusade against ‘negative humor.' We begin each retreat by asking students not to use this kind of humor during our retreats, and we strive not to use it either. We have met hundreds of teens and adults who have been deeply wounded by negative humor, which we define as the kind of humor that is sarcastic, mean-spirited, and makes fun of other people because of their race, ethnic background, clothing styles, hair color, age, mental capabilities, and physical limitations. Many of us carry deep scars in our hearts from being laughed at, and some people have needed ongoing prayer, regular opportunities to forgive other people, and even therapy to be healed of effects of negative humor. We have met teens and adults who never want to attend a grade school or high school class reunion because of the ways they have been treated. Yes, negative humor must be avoided.
What is Adolescent Humor?
Although most people who work with teenagers understand innately what ‘adolescent humor' is, I will clarify the REAP Team's use of this term. Adolescent humor is the humor of teenagers, who are not quite children and not quite adults; it can be silly, outrageous, gross, and disgusting. It sometimes deals with things that are embarrassing and shocking. Some specific examples of adolescent humor, which is often sprinkled throughout REAP Team retreats, are jokes about the planet Uranus, a joke about running over a bunny rabbit and then reviving it, and our after-meal entertainment called "The Spontaneous Melodrama", which includes a character acting like a dog.
I understand the objections to our use of adolescent humor - although the majority of adults we work with love and understand our use of this style of humor, and actually appreciate the fact that we use it. Some adult leaders believe that this style of humor is in poor taste, and yet most of these same adults would agree that it is more important for us to reach teens and connect with them on our retreats than it is to connect with the adults who brought them. If we can do both, of course, that is better, but our top priority is to connect with teens. I believe that in light of our goals, the benefits of adolescent humor far outweigh any negative effects.
Why Adolescent Humor?
I want to be quite clear that we do not utilize adolescent humor flippantly. The primary reason we use adolescent humor is because we work with adolescents, and desire to reach them ‘where they are at'. St. Paul actually encourages us in the Bible to be "all things to all people", so we try to get into the mind of a teenager when we tell our jokes. The things that adolescents find funny can be different than what some older adults find funny. Incidentally, when we work primarily with adult audiences, we usually tell different jokes and use more ‘grown up' humor. I do not believe that our use of adolescent humor has ever been an obstacle to teens responding the Gospel - no teenager that I can recall has ever shared with me that they have been "turned off" or "scandalized" by our use of adolescent humor. As a matter of fact, what we do on our retreats is actually quite tame compared to many things teens hear, discuss, and joke about among themselves on a regular basis.
I personally believe that the use of adolescent humor is a matter of style and personal taste rather than an issue of biblical or moral acceptability. I have prayed about this issue at length, discussed it with many professional youth ministers and pastoral leaders, sought the advice of people who are far wiser than I am, and have even brought this issue before my own spiritual director - and the overwhelming majority of those who I have discussed this issue with do not consider the use of adolescent humor problematic in retreat ministry. As a matter of fact, they see its value.
Adolescent humor has the effect of destroying labels. As mentioned above, most students come into one of our retreats expecting the day to be boring and stupid. Sometimes this is because they see religion, faith, and God in the same way. If they are expecting a retreat to be boring and stupid, they probably expect the same from the team. I have experienced that when teens see us having fun and joking about things that they think are funny, they begin to think that we might actually be cool and be people that they can relate to. The use of adolescent humor is not an end in itself; it is a tool to reach teenagers, and should be evaluated in light of our overall ability to reach teens.
I have personally experienced that in almost any crowd there are some "tough kids" who aren't easily engaged by traditional means. I can't tell you how many times I have looked out into a crowd and seen teens with faces of stone, seemingly convinced that they will not have fun or laugh on a retreat. Adolescent humor frequently draws in kids like this. It is amazing to me how something as simple as jokes about the planet Uranus can make even the toughest kids (especially teenage boys) crack a smile, and enter into the day. If we are to reach teens with the message of the Gospel, we need to have their attention first. Shocking them with adolescent humor early in the day (though hopefully never in a morally offensive way) is a great way to get their attention. We want the students who attend our retreats to always be wondering, "What are these people going to say or do next?" rather than wondering, "When will this finally be over?" or, worse yet to have them thinking, "I've heard all of this boring stuff before" or "I can't relate to these people". I believe that adolescent humor helps us to achieve this goal of connecting with teens. If you imagine the REAP Team's repertoire as a giant toolbox, adolescent humor is only one tool, but it is an important one. We like to think of it as a tool for "hard to reach places". The hearts of some teens are just such places.
Another reason we utilize adolescent humor along with other nontraditional methodologies (dramas, skits, entertainment, breaks, recreation) is because of time restraints. Principals, priests, teachers, and parish youth ministers have the privilege of a long-term relationship with teens; the REAP Team does not enjoy that luxury. We don't have an entire school year or an entire grade school/high school career to get to know students, for them to get to know us, or for them to open up. Usually we only have a several hours. This makes it all the more critical that we get their attention and draw them in as quickly as possible.
Why Not Other Jokes and Other Humor?
Several people in the past have asked, "But why can't you use other jokes, and other humor?" Well, obviously, we could. However, in the past seventeen years that the REAP Team has been doing retreat ministry, we have discovered some things that really ‘work' in adolescent retreat ministry, and this type of humor definitely works! Since our primary goal on retreats is to reach students with the Gospel, we prefer to use every tool that works well, and we believe that adolescent humor is an excellent tool for reaching teens. And, one of the things that makes the REAP Team unique is precisely the unexpected use of this type of humor. Many people who work in the Church tell jokes, but adolescent humor is what we find to be the funniest to adolescents (based upon daily experience observing crowd reactions), so we prefer to use it.
Finally, teenagers who have joined the REAP Team as a direct result of being on our retreats, who are some of the teens I know who are most profoundly committed to Christ and to spreading the Gospel, have told me that they think adolescent humor is a critical component of what the REAP Team does. They agree that it is an important tool, which reaches their peers for ultimately the greatest goal of making a commitment to Christ.
Now that you understand some of the key reasons the REAP Team utilizes adolescent humor, I would ask you to very prayerfully consider its use on retreats with your students in the future. Please know that we do in fact pray before every retreat about every aspect of that particular retreat, begging God that He reach even the most hardened of hearts. We pray that students will laugh and open up early, and that He will make us funny, not for our glory, but for His. Adolescent humor opens teens up for the greater purpose of responding the message of the Gospel, and that is why we believe in it. It is a tool that I would prefer to keep in our ministry's toolbox. However, should any adult leader decide that this kind of humor is too much of an obstacle either for yourself or for any of the other adult leaders at your parish, please let me know. We are willing to do our best to tweak and modify what we do on our retreats, even if that means eliminating specific jokes and skits. We would obviously be disappointed, for all of the reasons mentioned above. Yet, this is something that I am willing to discuss. I will continue to pray about this matter, and I ask you to do the same.