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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