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.
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. 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. They 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.