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.