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Youth and Culture and Change, Part 7

This is part seven (of seven) of a blog series discussing the differences between focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues versus focusing on cultural issues. [If you are just joining, I recommend going back to the beginning.]

Last post I proposed a way forward that intentionally combines the focus on both development and all the levels of culture. This focus allows for ministry to happen at the deepest level of development. In this model it is possible to step into a truly relational ministry that honors the individual as person.

For the purpose of drawing out the logical conclusions and manifestations of each approach to youth ministry I have separated the two approaches. I recognize that most ministries do incorporate parts of both development and culture. By separating them out as I have here in this series, I have attempted to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. In this way I hope to have clarified my points in ways that would have been otherwise difficult.

I want to conclude this series with hope. I am incredibly hopeful about the future of youth ministry. There are many places where churches seem to be “getting it” and are engaging youth at the heart level of ministry, caring for them as people, not projects, and engaging youth in ministry. Many of these places may not articulate their focus in the ways I have attempted to here, but they are doing it. God is moving in the lives of young people, calling them forward into an active relationship with the living Christ, gifting them for mission and dreaming in them Kingdom dreams. Thank you who are involved in youth ministry for being a part of that. Thank you for being faithful in pointing youth towards the living Christ. You matter and what you do matters.

Here are a few questions that might be helpful as you and your team wrestle with some of these issues:
1) How has our youth ministry tended to emphasize development or culture?
2) What have been the strengths and weaknesses of our approaches?
3) Where have we not focused enough on the adolescent development issues? Where have we not focused enough on the cultural issues?
4) What are some ways that we as a team can work to understand culture at all three levels – macro, local and micro?
5) How do we engage youth in ministry right now? And to what level are we doing ministry for and to youth?
6) What are the next steps we might begin to take to engage youth in ministry? (for example, how might we begin to listen to youth?)
7) Since one youth pastor/director cannot possibly know every young person at the micro level of culture where significance, meaning and capability are best realized, how can we engage more of the congregation in relational ministry?
8) Has our focus been on the “youth team” doing the ministry or has our focus been on making sure that ministry with youth is being done?

I hope that this series has been helpful in thinking about youth ministry. Any feedback or questions would be very appreciated as I am learning as I go as well.

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Youth and culture and change, Part 6

This is part six of a blog series discussing the differences between focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues versus focusing on cultural issues. [If you are just joining, I recommend going back to the beginning.]

I have been focusing our conversation on two different approaches to youth ministry: one focused on dealing with the developmental issues of adolescents, the other focused on dealing with the cultural issues around teenagers. In the last post I discussed some of the shortfalls of both approaches.

Here I am going to propose a new way forward in this conversation. This is a way that embraces both approaches and attempts to develop a deeper connection at a life-changing level.

A new way forward has to value youth for where they are developmentally. This is an important and valuable time in life. The goal of the church should not be to “cure” anyone of this or to make them “grown up”. Nor should the goal of youth ministry to be to keep youth like “big children”. Adolescents should be viewed as normal and important parts of our congregations. There is much we can learn from youth as they engage in the changes of this time of life. If we open ourselves up to being present to youth, then perhaps we find that we are all on a journey of realizing our humanity and identity in Christ.

There can be a temptation when working with youth and focusing on adolescent development issues to assume that the “adults” have it all figured out and that there is only one way forward. It is important to give spaces for youth to choose events, relationships and places of serving that offer both stretching and safety. This means that there are appropriate time when dividing the group into developmentally different groups can and should happen. This provides time for some effective communication of the gospel as well as opportunities for challenge. This also means the are appropriate times when the group needs to be with the whole congregation. This is where they see what it is like to be a healthy God following person at another stage of life. It is also where they can make connections with those who are younger and those who are older. By offering these times of separation and connection, a healthy youth ministry values each person as an individual and gives them places to make connections on a number of different levels. It also gives them voice.

A new way forward also has to embrace the realities of culture in the life of a youth. While macro culture is important and local culture is somewhat formative, the church must learn to reach all the way into the micro level of youth culture in order to affect long-term change. As I mentioned last post, ministry rarely gets to this level of culture. This happens through relationships that take time and intentionality. Micro culture

When a youth ministry does this it recognizes that there are many voices in the lives of a young person. It also provides space for those young people to engage truth at their own communal level of understanding. It embraces all truth as God’s truth and equips young people to recognize and claim truth, wherever they find it, as another piece to the puzzle to help us all see God’s love.

Ultimately, when a youth ministry embraces both the developmental realities and the cultural influences on young people it can help them to find significance, meaning and capability as they develop their identity. Youth are Mission Diagram It is here that young people are able to wrestle with the many, complex realities of their lives. Here is where identity is truly formed. In a youth ministry that embraces both realities – culture and development – young people are actively engaged in doing ministry. It is in these moments of serving together with adults that young people discover their significance, meaning and capability.

As young people engage their cultural influences in the midst of developmental changes, a healthy youth ministry helps them to discover that they matter. Each young person has significance in the community because he/she is the only person like them in the whole world. The relationship the church as a community has with this individual matters as the end goal – not as a means to an end. When that young person is not there, he/she is missed. Someone notices them as important.

In addition to realizing their significance in the body of Christ, an aware youth ministry also helps a young person discover that life has meaning. Specifically, each person’s life has meaning. Young people should have space to try out different types of serving so that they can discover the gifts, dreams and calling God has places on their life. When the church allows young people to serve in ways that recognize their abilities and challenges them to utilize their gifts, it can provide the experienced adult to come alongside as a guide. In so doing, the adult does not take over the ministry or merely allow the youth to observe ministry done by adults; rather, they do ministry together. What better way for an adult to be present to the teachable moments than to serve together? In this way adults are able to be present to the developmental capabilities of youth, to listen to their insights and to adapt the ministry to the cultural needs of that place, time and culture.

A youth ministry that embraces the overlap also helps young people discover and live into their capability. As youth discover that their God given gifts, dreams and calling, youth also begin to realize that God has made them capable of making a difference for the kingdom. There is a difference from being asked to do a task and feeling like you are able to do that task well. As young people are engaged in trying different types of ministry they are able to contribute to the ministry of the church in ways that are effective, valuable and growing.
To be specific, youth ministry that recognizes both the developmental issues and the cultural influences on adolescents is a ministry that is done with youth, not to or for youth. This is a church that values youth, engages in robust rites of passage, sends youth out as missionaries and creates leaders in the church.

This starts with valuing youth. A church and ministry that values youth makes it a priority to listen to youth. Who understands the cultural issues of a youth culture or a youth cluster better than the youth who is a part of it? Throughout Scripture God shows up to young people, sharing his voice, speaking the truth and challenging them to great things. I believe that this is also true today. If we are willing to ask young people what God is up to in their lives, we might well better see a picture of the kingdom more beautiful than imagined.
Rites of passage, as mentioned before, can be incredibly formative moments in the life of a person if they effectively engage the process. These should engage the whole of the congregation and the family, taking time to first recognize the current state of young people and defining the current expectations of them. The next step should be a time of liminality where these young people are divided from the congregation and family for a period of experience, discovery and challenge. Here young people are valued enough to allow them to discover their meaning and capability on their own. Finally, the group should be reintroduced into the community at a new level where they now carry different expectations from the community as they have proved themselves able to operate at a new level. By engaging in these rites of passage a community is able clearly communicate the expectations of young people along the way and allow them to move to the next level. This affirms the realities of development as well as potentially creating a micro culture of youth that share common Biblical values and behaviors centered in Christ.

This also offers the church an opportunity to raise up groups of young people who see themselves a missionary. That is they together see part of their role to reach out in their schools, workplaces, team, clubs and communities to other clusters of youth. clusters as ministryThey understand the missionary impulse of a missionary God in their midst and are willing to embrace an outward focus for those youth who are without a close community cluster. They are also focused on reaching other peer clusters by inviting groups of people to join the larger community of faith. By doing this the church recognizes youth as valuable missionaries and encourages them to operate at the micro level of culture. The church also acknowledges the gifts, dreams and calling that God has given to youth.

Finally, I also believe that a ministry focused on both allows for incredible leadership development. Some of the best ministers to early adolescent youth are those who have just transitioned to the next level of development (mid-adolescence). If given opportunity, adult support, and proper training, these mid-adolescents can invest in those early adolescents by utilizing their God given gifts in relationship with them. The same is true for late-adolescents (or “emerging adults” depending on your preferred term). They can understand and serve those who are mid-adolescents in part because they understand the issues best. This is not to say that adults do not need to be involved in these processes and training, but it does create opportunities for youth to serve and learn to lead. Some of the greatest youth ministries in the history of Christianity have focused on creating youth leaders. Christ himself focused his training efforts on 12 young men whom many scholars believe were in their late teens. Focusing on developing youth as leaders recognizes their growing developmental capabilities, while also leaning on their strengths in understanding youth culture at all three levels.

As you see this type of ministry described, which of these things resonate with you? Which challenge you? What is keeping you and your youth ministry team from trying out some of these things this year?

I will finish this series with the next post which wraps up the conversation and offers some further questions for engaging these issues.

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Youth and culture and change, part 5

This is part five of a blog series discussing the differences between focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues versus focusing on cultural issues. [Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4]

I have been focusing our conversation on two different approaches to youth ministry: one focused on dealing with the developmental issues of adolescents, the other focused on dealing with the cultural issues around teenagers. In the last two posts I tried to spell out the rationale for approaching youth ministry each of those ways. I also tried to give some examples of what those ministries might look like and how they could be helpful for youth ministry.

Here I am going to talk about the shortfalls of both of those approaches to youth ministry.

When a youth ministry focuses specifically on the developmental issues it falls into some very subjective groupings and ignores the cultural influences on youth. One of the biggest negatives to approaching youth ministry focused on the developmental issues is that the church usually defers to the public school system in determining developmental levels. Most youth ministries focused this way have middle school and high school groups. That is they set the age requirements for being in each group based on what the public school system in their area decides for middle school and high school. Those who work with youth on a regular basis know all too well that all youth that are the same age are not necessarily at the same developmental level. For example, some youth who are the age of high school students are not yet developmentally at the same level as most of their peers.

To make this matter more complicated, many youth may develop at different rates in different areas of their life. For example, a seventh grade student may hit her growth spurt sooner than her peers and so may developmentally look like she is a young adult. However, that same girl may not have developed cognitively at the same rate. In many settings she may be addressed like an adult because she physically looks like one, however, she may not yet have reached the ability to think in the abstract. This can create a lot of complications in dealing with youth on a developmental level.

Public schools typically make the age distinction between elementary and middle school and high school based on a number of different factors. The first factor is that they have been doing it “that way” for a long time. It is easier to continue this, than to do something differently. Other factors include building space, busing needs, teacher availability and training, money, and different sizes of classes of students who are the same age.

If a ministry was specifically focused on developmental issues, then it should place youth in different developmental groups based on their actual development, not just based on their age. This would take a lot of time to continually assess and would likely make some parents and youth uncomfortable, so it is not done very often.

Another issue with approaching youth ministry from a developmental focus is that it assumes that each student will experience the same issues in development and that the end goal of the developmental process for each student is the same. It ignores the cultural issues and treats young people like robots of sorts, assuming that if you input the right programming at the right time, then the right things will come out. This sounds like a great idea, but information by itself does not ever equal transformation.

The last issue I’d like to discuss regarding youth ministry focused on developmental issues is that of rites of passage. I mentioned in a previous post that when a ministry focuses on developmental issues there is an incredible opportunity to embrace rites of passage to indicate a transition from one stage of life to another. However, it is my experience that very few churches embrace this opportunity beyond a simple “transition Sunday”. A true rite of passage would include a time of identifying the candidates for the transition and separating them from their previous group, entering them into a liminal or in-between time where they have a shared experience together, and then a re-entry into the community where the whole community acknowledges these people as entering a different level with different expectations of their behavior.

While a ministry focused on developmental issues is primed for this kind of activity, in my experiences they rarely capitalize on this opportunity and thus subvert some teachable moments with youth and miss out on opportunities to encouraged increase leadership and participation by youth at different levels. By failing to embrace these natural rhythms these ministries can actually be doing harm to the developmental process because young people are looking for defined spaces and places where they belong.

The youth ministry solely focused on cultural issues also has some shortfalls. Those ministries ignore the developmental realities of adolescent and often deal with culture on levels where youth do not make their formative decisions. By focusing only on the popular cultural issues this type of ministry assumes, inaccurately, that youth are able to connect and process to their cultural engagement in ways that allow them to discern the truth. Just because every youth knows about “Angry Birds” does not also mean that they are able to understand that the cultural accommodation is there to point people to Christ. Youth may well connect to those things because of the familiarity, but may also be unable to process the messages communicated because they may be below or above their developmental capabilities.

Another factor in focusing solely on cultural issues is that those youth ministries typically are dealing with areas of culture that are familiar but are not transformational. As I mentioned before, most youth ministry that deals with culture works on a macro level of culture. That is they deal in the popular cultural symbols and values. These are important to larger culture because they are part of the soil and atmosphere within which these youth are growing up, however, they are not the areas where youth are consciously making life choices. Even the ministries that get to the local level of culture are addressing things in a young person’s life, but often not getting to the cultural level where youth are consciously formed. I would like to introduce a third level of culture where youth do make those significant decisions about what will be active beliefs in their lives.

Micro cultureThe third level of culture is the micro level. This micro level of culture exists within the local level of culture which exists within the macro level of culture and the local level of culture. (Diagram) At this level we find peer clusters. These are typically gender specific groups of 4-10 youth who share certain values and behaviors and where the big decisions of life are made together. Because of the lack of adult presence in the lives of young people in the broader culture (especially compared to 40-50 years ago) they have formed these groups who become their guiding influences through adolescence.

Peer cluster

Peer Cluster

Rarely are big decisions made outside the context of these groups.  It is at this micro level of culture where adolescents not only survive, but also determine their specific values and behaviors. It is here that youth find significance, meaning and capability. While these clusters are small they do interact with other clusters through the individual relationships of each member of the cluster (social networking capitalizes on this – you are close to person A who also knows person Z, therefore you probably also would like to “know” person Z).

social networking

Social Networking

Most youth ministries in my experience do not get to ministry at a micro level. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the micro level of culture, where youth clusters exist are made up of youth. If a youth ministry is focused on adults doing ministry for youth, then those adults are not invited into that level of culture. Secondly, the level of connection for these youth clusters at the micro level is very high. In this day of technology and communication, youth communicate with others at all times of the day, whether they are geographically close or not, in ways that adults and ministries simply do not connect. Third, once these clusters are set, it is very hard and very rare that youth will abandon these clusters. Our typical approaches to evangelism and discipleship are focused on the individual. When we invite a single person to accept Christ, we are in many ways asking them to leave their cluster – where they find significance, meaning and capability – behind altogether. This is akin to asking an adult to leave their family behind to come to Christ. It is a very difficult and complex thing we are asking and I do not believe we are aware of how significant this decision is for people.

Both the youth ministry focused on development and the youth ministry focused on culture are falling short. In the next post I will work to propose a way forward where a youth ministry can focus in appropriate ways on both culture and development.

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Youth and culture and change, part 4

This is part four of a blog series discussing the differences between focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues versus focusing on cultural issues. [Parts 1, 2, and 3]

Here I would like to make the argument for why focusing a youth ministry on cultural issues is important.

Youth and culture are intertwined. There is nowhere culture does not touch and impact the lives of adolescents. Whatever the culture may be, it is not just something that is one part of the lives of young people, it is interwoven into EVERY part of the lives of young people. A good metaphor I have seen used is that of a growing tree or plant. The tree cannot choose the soil where it is planted, nor the atmosphere that is around it as it grows. It is there and it has to adjust, adapt, and create in the midst of that soil and atmosphere. This is what culture is.

It is important to note that there are many different kinds and types and levels of culture. For starters there is the wider macro level of culture. This is broad culture within which a group of people live. In the West this is mostly a postmodern culture. There has been a lot written and discussed about postmodernity and I am going to assume for the purpose of this series (and to not get too sidetracked) that you, the reader, has some basic understanding of this. Young people, for the most part, today in the West have been born into a postmodern culture. The values, beliefs and understandings of the postmodern culture are the world that young people are growing up in. This is also where a lot of the popular culture that we think about associated with young people resides. From the music to the video games and even to the medium through which these are experienced (mostly ways to access and interact with the “world wide web”), these are all operating in this larger macro space of culture.

The macro level of culture is indeed large and covers most of North America. This is where youth ministries who focus on culture often operate. They build their ministries in ways that connect to these cultural pieces in the lives of young people. For example a few years ago I heard about a church who did a “Temple Run” night that included running on a treadmill while dodging “branches” and jumping over “pits”. (Youth pastors are so creative and fun!) They also spent some time talking about the “obstacles” we face in our faith and how we are to strive on the journey for Christ. The whole night was indeed an “experience.”

Macro culture

This is helpful for youth ministries on a number of levels. First, it communicates that they understand youth and their world. Because macro culture is so widely reaching most youth can identify with these themes and elements. By utilizing these parts of the macro culture, the ministry creates a space where young people are familiar and comfortable. Second, it communicates a deeper level of understanding of young people and their culture because it often moves past just acknowledging those elements of culture, but helps youth discover the truths and lies within that broader culture. Third, this allows youth ministries that all exist within the larger macro culture to share ideas and innovations for connecting with youth and sharing truth (just look at all the youth ministry ideas on Pinterest!). The challenge here is to make sure the youth ministry is a student of broader youth culture in order to keep up with the changes, fads and latest broadly popular things.

Another level of culture is the local level. This is typically where language, overall religious expressions and behavioral rhythms are located. On the local level of culture youth are shaped by their families towards certain affiliations and patterns of behavior. A language and accent are shared here (as a friend of mine who is from South Korea but currently studying in the United States once told me, “You all speak English, but it is not the same English!”). Communities also typically have certain expressions of religion and worship that are deemed acceptable (and others not acceptable). Rhythms of work and entertainment are also shared, adapted and innovated at this level of culture. This is not a totally separate level of culture from the macro level, but rather resides within the macro level.

Local culture

A good way to conceptualize this is local sports teams. In a local area there are certain teams that are adopted as “home teams” and the community there buys in at various levels to cheering for that team. I live just outside of Lexington, Kentucky where everyone is a University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. The best time to go to any store if your goal is to encounter as little traffic as possible is during a Kentucky Wildcat basketball game. Everyone is watching the game. This is not a national issue, but it is something that is expressed in this local area. For a youth ministry here to schedule an event during a Kentucky game is to ask for no one to come!

Youth ministries who are aware of both the macro and local levels of culture, often make sure to recognize that each school system has its own local culture that operates inside the larger macro level of culture. (See diagram above.) Therefore this ministry will be sure to make space for gatherings of adolescents that are a part of these different local cultures. For example they might have time or space for small groups that are geographically centered or focused on students from a specific school (Public High School A small groups meet on Tuesday night; Public High School B small groups meet on Thursday night; Home School small groups meet on Thursday afternoon, etc.). In this way the youth ministry acknowledge the macro culture issues as well as the local culture issues for these youth. There are just some issues that cannot be understood by an outsider from that local culture.

This helps youth ministries in several ways as well. First, it acknowledges the realities of the specific local lives of youth in that community. Just because two teenagers go to the same church does not mean that their local issues are the same. Second, it allows ministry application to become more specific to the rhythm, values and lifestyle of that specific local culture. If my middle school dance is on this night, then my small group can make sure to avoid meeting that night and perhaps even find ways to be present at that specific local event. The challenge here is to recognize the differences in the different local cultures.
For youth leaders who have moved to a new area to be employed, there is a learning curve for this part of the local culture. One youth pastor I know moved from a part of the United States where the local culture valued hard work above almost everything else. At this church the youth pastor excelled not because he was gifted in his teaching or curriculum writing or programming, but because he worked very hard and everyone knew it. In this local culture he was seen as one of the best youth pastors they had ever known. When he arrived in the new local culture there was much more value placed on being able to both work and play. The youth pastor started his time there by working as hard as he could. He was embracing the values in the previous local culture that had made him so successful. But in the new local culture he was never really embraced because he never took time to play with the people there. It was not until he had already made the choice to move to another church and local culture that he finally stopped to play with the people of his church. It was then that the people began to accept him into their community.

By being aware of both macro and local levels of culture, youth ministries can meet teenagers in the world where they live. They can respond to the soil and atmosphere around youth to point them to Christ and to help them navigate the tough decisions of adolescence. Without this knowledge and interaction, youth ministries who do not engage in culture do not really ever get to the place where youth really live.

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Youth and culture and change, part 3

This is part three of a blog series discussing the differences between focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues versus focusing on cultural issues.

Here I would like to make the argument for why focusing a youth ministry on developmental issues is important.

Adolescence equals transition. This is the stage of life for all people where you are no longer a child, but you are clearly not quite yet an adult. Everything is changing in your life when you are a teenager. You are changing physically. You are thinking about different things in different ways. You are able to understand that your actions affect others and you recognize the longer term impacts of your choices. You are developing your sense of who you are and who you are not, especially in comparison to your family.

The easiest transition to is the physical changes in adolescents. They grow physically bigger and develop sexually during this time. This is not easy. We all remember, usually with much cringing, our middle school years where this seemed to take center stage. It can be very difficult to deal with these changes. Some people start growing and changing sooner than others. Some grow faster than others. All the while, you are trying to navigate life in this changing body where hormones are messing with your emotions!
Adolescents are also changing cognitively; that is in the ways they can think. There is a transition from being able to think about things only in the concrete to being able to conceptualize things in the abstract. (For example the ways we try to explain the trinity to younger people usually involves lots of physical descriptors, like an egg, and as youth get older we can switch to more abstract relational concepts.) It seems that for most adolescents somewhere about the midpoint of this transition, the brain becomes fully capable of thinking through and handling “adult” issues. The teenage brain at this point is fully able to think about things that they cannot see, imagine results for actions they might take in the future, and make decisions based on a number of differing and complex variables. This is exciting for sure, because you begin to realize that you can understand complex ideas that were once a mystery, solve problems on your own and make decisions for yourself. It can also be a difficult time because you do not yet have the life experience to fully know how or where to utilize this new capacity.

With this growing body and mind comes a growing capacity to make decisions about faith and moral issues. As you grow in this stage you become more and more capable of thinking of others and realizing the impact your decisions could have on others. You can think about the larger good for the most people, not just what is good for you and your friends. You can understand that there are “gray” areas of life and that everything is no longer “black and white”. You are now able to understand that there are complexities to all issues and have the ability to see things from a number of different people’s perspectives. This is not without its challenges either, because as a teen you see a variety of different people making a variety of different choices based on a variety of different criteria. The issues of right and wrong are very complex.

In the mix of all of these growing capacities and abilities of adolescence is the challenge of defining who you are as an individual. All of sudden you have many choices and you have some freedom and ability to pursue those choices (at least some of them). Adolescents naturally are pushing away from their identity as a part of a specific family system and that family system’s values and choices so they can determine which of those choices are really their own. In short they are trying to determine who they are and what they care about.
I need to pause here for a moment and acknowledge that recent studies have called into question some of the research on these developmental changes in adolescents, especially when in different cultures. The prevalent argument, boiled down and massively simplified, is that adolescents in different cultures may experience these changes at different rates depending on their native culture(s). Without wading into all this research, let me simply state that studies do not deny that adolescence is the time period where all people make this transition and develop in these ways. It seems to be a part of healthy development for all people in all cultures that they develop physically, cognitively, morally and in identity.
With all of these changes that are happening in adolescence a good youth ministry needs to focus on helping teens make good decisions during these changes and provide adults that can journey alongside teens. This period of transition is not a problem to be fixed, a storm to be weathered, or an alien species to be endured. It is a natural part of life with some exciting times of teachable moments. What is most needed during this process is some adults to act as guides to help adolescents navigate these changes and embrace who they are created to be.

When a church decides to develop its youth ministry around these developmental issues, it can build a program that pretty much stays the same over the years. The issues around this period of life that has so many changes are not going to change much. The role of the church is to address those developmental challenges in ways that help young people make good choices and acknowledge their developmental level.

As I mentioned in the last post, this means that a youth ministry will seek out ways to be developmentally appropriate in their content and delivery. Often there is a focus on dividing the larger youth group up into developmentally specific areas – age groups and gender – to best share the gospel in ways that the young people will understand and can relate to. There is also great opportunity in this model to incorporate rites of passage that signify the movement from one developmental stage to the next and with that a change in the content and delivery method that is appropriate for the new stage.

The role of adults in this approach is to journey alongside youth as they transition so that there can be support, understanding and wisdom. Adults can support youth through their presence and encouragement. Teens feel understood when they know that someone else has gone through similar changes and survived. Adults can provide the voice of experience and wisdom that teens do not have as they counsel and guide young people in their life decisions.

In this model the program needs to change only for variety and to adjust to minor developmental changes (for example the lowering average age of the onset of puberty). Once the program is designed appropriately to help with developmental appropriate needs and issues, then there is not much need for adjustment. In fact, the model for youth ministry can be pretty much the same everywhere. There are basic tools and principles that can be learned and applied to every context.

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Youth and Culture and Change, Part 2

In the introduction to this series I pointed out a tension I feel in youth ministry today. Some youth ministries, it seems to me, focus on adolescent development issues. Others focus on cultural issues. I would like to wrestle with these two approaches in this blog series.

I hope you jump into the conversation with your team, friends in ministry or here in the comments.

In this post I would like to describe what each of these ministries focuses on and looks like.

When I mention that some ministries are focused on adolescent development issues, I am talking about the ways that teenagers grow during this transitional time of life. We see teens develop physically, in the ways they think (cognitively), in their faith and morals, and in their identity.

A ministry focused on adolescent development is usually very aware of the different developmental levels of different students. For example, they realize that younger teens cannot think very well abstractly and so they need more object lessons and direct applications. They usually have divided age level ministries and classes and often will have gender separated groups. They do this because they recognize that each of these age groups is at a different place developmentally and therefore need to hear different parts of Scripture emphasized and taught in different ways.

They will also spend a lot of time focused on identity development. For example, they will talk about knowing who I am in Christ based on my faith and God’s promises, versus defining who I am based on how I “feel” or my circumstances.

When I mention that some ministries are focused on youth culture issues, I am talking about being aware of the different messages, voices and influences on teenagers’ lives that are telling them how to think and believe. They focus on being aware of youth culture by paying attention to the latest trends, fads, media and messages of the current youth culture.

A ministry focused on youth culture integrates youth culture into their programming. They often compare the message of songs, movies, TV shows, etc., with the message of Scripture. They will also borrow or adapt symbols, logos, or sayings from youth culture that teens identify with to connect to them. They do this because they recognize how youth culture shapes the values of teens in their community and want to point out the places where this might be good and identify the places where culture’s message is different than that of Scripture. For example, they may talk about who I am in Christ versus what the world tells me.

Based on these descriptions which would you say the ministry you know best focuses on? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach as you see it?

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