I have been in youth ministry for about half of my life (I was 18 when I began my first youth ministry internship, and I just turned 36 a few weeks ago). Truly, it was not a profession that I sought out—through various means and circumstances, I believe that it sought me out, or, more accurately, God called me to it.
I spend a lot of time doing youth ministry, I spend a lot of time reading about youth ministry, I spend a lot of time talking about youth ministry, and I spend a lot of time praying about youth ministry (but certainly not as much as I should). I am hesitant to describe myself as an “expert” on anything, because I am aware of how limited I am and how much I still have to learn, but outside of DuckTales trivia, I am probably closer to being an “expert” on youth ministry than anything else in life.
From my perspective, there are two really significant concerns in youth ministry today: (1) the large percentage of young people who walk away from their faith after high school and graduation from their youth groups, and (2) the phenomenon of extended adolescence.
I have talked and written quite a bit about the former issue (“What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers?”, “Harding Lectures Audio Files”, “Revamping Our Youth Ministries”, “The Current Crisis in Youth Ministry”); it also features prominently in my book, Youth In Family Ministry. I have not written as much about extended adolescence, but it is a fascinating topic to me, and a number of friends and acquaintances have found themselves trapped in long conversations with me about it (sorry!).
Adolescence as a concept has not been around very long, maybe 100 years or so. A simple way to think of it is the gap between physical maturity and societal maturity: when is someone considered able to function in society as a mature adult, handling all the responsibilities that adulthood entails? This has cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual implications.
A hundred years ago, the gap didn’t really exist, or if it did, it was very short: young men and ladies would go through puberty in their mid teens and often begin courting shortly thereafter, to be followed by marriage and all the expectations of adulthood.
Things have changed a lot since then. Puberty is occurring earlier and earlier (especially in girls), and the entrance to adulthood gets pushed back further and further. In fact, there is no consensus in contemporary American society about what makes one an adult: a driver’s license? High school graduation? Sexual experience? Registering to vote? Marriage? Moving out of parents’ home? Furthermore, many of these milestones have less appeal than they used to: increasingly, many teens are waiting to get driver’s licenses, a lot of high school graduates are avoiding college (or at least taking a “gap year”), millennials are marrying later than ever, and we are all familar with the cliched image of the 30 year-old college graduate who lives in his parents’ basement playing video games all day.
Becoming an adult is now regarded as such a daunting task that the very word adult has been turned into a verb, and older adolescents (“emerging adults”) will verbally pat themselves on the back because they “adulted” today—accomplishing some task that previous generations would have done without thinking, because it was what was expected.
If all of this sounds like the cranky, get-off-my-lawn complaints of a grouchy youth minister, I want to be clear that this is not just a behavioral issue where young people are being intentionally immature—this phenomenon is happening at a physiological level. While teenage bodies are developing earlier and earlier, their brain development has slowed. Higher level analytical thinking skills that were once manifest in 15 year-olds are now not evidenced until the upper teen years or even early 20s. This statement is backed up by research, but it is also anecdotally true: talk to someone who has taught junior high, high school, or college students for an extended period of time and see if they have noticed a difference. I certainly have.
Extended adolescence is a complicated issue, and certainly, there are many factors that contribute to it, but recently, I was reading a brilliant essay that pointed out a major one:
I suggest that what we are experiencing in our classrooms and what our data demonstrates is the result of the cumulative effects of adolescents who have, essentially, been left along to journey through adolescence.…When kids are systematically left to their own devices to individuate into adulthood, their progression is slowed.
When I read that, my mind was blown. It made so much sense and I couldn’t believe it had never occurred to me before. In my work to address the first main problem in youth ministry (teens leaving the church after high school), I have focused significantly on the importance of young people being around adults (both their parents, and also older, mature Christians) as a means of developing long-term faith and helping them become mature Christians themselves, but it didn’t occur to me that this exact same practice is also the best means we have of addressing the crisis of extended adolescence as well: the more that developing adults (i.e. adolescents) are around adults in meaningful ways, the better and earlier they will learn to “adult” on their own.
So, with all of that said, here is the firmest thing I know about the practice of youth ministry, the closest thing I have to a magic pill or a silver bullet: if you want your kids to grow to healthy adulthood and become lifelong disciples of Jesus, ensure that they spend a lot of time with adults who are serious about their faith (and make sure that you, the parent, fit that description as well).
May God grant us both wisdom and mercy as we seek to raise His kids to His glory!
Obviously, there are more than two, but I would argue that these are the most significant, and that many other concerns actually stem from these issues. The use of technology and the online behavior of teens might be equally significant.
The basic idea of extended adolescence is that it is taking young people longer and longer to “act like adults.” You can read more about this here.
See Chap Clark’s discussion of “middle adolescence” in Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011): 5-21.
Steven Bonner, “Understanding the Changing Adolescent,” in Adoptive Youth Ministry: Integrating Emerging Generations into the Family of Faith, ed. Chap Clark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016): 37.