Inside the world of today's teenagers

Matt Westbrook | Aug 22, 2005

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor

“The inability during mid-adolescence to balance disappointment over specific events, people or institutions by separating the good from the bad drives the intense need for a safe place. Mid-adolescents gather in like-minded groups to protect themselves from the forces they perceive as alien to them. This is the main reason clusters have replaced cliques in today’s adolescent social economy: Adolescents believe they have no alternative.” [[Clark, Chap. Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI. 2004, 75.]]

The following is a Q & A session with Fuller professor and author Chap Clark and a group of youth pastors about this quote and other concepts from his book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Each of the participants had read Chap’s book beforehand and came prepared with lots of questions regarding his analysis and conclusions. Whether you’ve read the book or not, reading the following excerpts from their discussion will probably stretch the way you think about relational youth ministry.

Q. Our culture has these really strict, narrow definitions and categories for kids. Kids are viewed as jocks, or punks, or kids with skateboards permanently attached to their feet, or some other label. What do we do as youth ministers to unify these clusters? In other words, how do I get my skater kids to care about my sports kids?

A. You can’t. Let’s start there. If you make any progress, you are doing great. The ability of youth ministry people and parents to influence the friends their kids pick is nil, at best. By the time the kid hits mid-adolescence, the power of adult forces around them lessens. Kids are given a lot more freedom and choices. Kids also kick into a level of abstraction – not only of information, but of how they relate to people. Therefore, youth are going to pick the friends that are going to provide them the best possible way to experience high school. When they do that, their friends become almost a “pseudo family” for them.

Q. If that’s true, then how do we make our group cohesive?

A. Where in the Bible does it say we have to make it cohesive? We have bought into a 1960’s-1970’s model of youth ministry that was created in a social setting that no longer exists. Actually, it does exist but it exists with people 20-26 years old: it’s called “late adolescence.”

Not even mid-adolescence existed 20 years ago. Adolescence has increased – it’s now from around age 11 or 12 to mid-to-late twenties. About ten years ago, people who wrote about kids noticed that the developmental period called adolescence was lengthening. They came up with the term “mid-adolescence” to describe the period between about age 15 and about age 19-21.

We in church ministry created the idea of a youth group because parachurch groups like Young Life and Youth for Christ did it. To adults, youth group means getting all kinds of different kids in one group together and expecting them to get along with other kids and hang out. But that hasn’t really happened in 15 years.

The real observable shift happened in the mid-1990’s. Before then, youth workers could have a group of kids together and have a band for them and 80% of those kids would like the band. You could play one genre of music on the way to camp for six hours and everyone would be into it. Then this homogeneity started to dissipate.

All of a sudden we started understanding the phenomenon of clustering: mid-adolescent kids went underground and developed very sophisticated social systems. In our outreach class here at Fuller, one of our assignments is to observe kids that you have never met before – to do what I did in Hurt - for 20 hours and just look around and listen hard. You then see that the social system doesn’t allow for kids to have the kind of youth group that we often propose because they work so hard to define and defend themselves in their clusters. As they do that, they line up with other clusters that are “friends” and other clusters that are “not friends.”

Q. So how do kids pick their clusters?

A. Kids pick their clusters according to sub-culture. That was what was happening with Columbine and the school shootings there. Among kids, if you have a scale of 1 to 10 on self-concept, 10 being the highest (e.g.: I like myself, I feel like people should like me…), 7-9’s will like youth group. You will not get the 7’s and 8’s to spend time with the 5’s. The 5’s are the kids that sit outside and smoke and act tough. To get the 4’s and 5’s socially to mix with the 7’s and 8’s – even if they are Christians – is very tough.

So I think that unless you have a homogeneous group where everyone looks and acts the same, the concept of a youth group with clusters that all act like friends with each other doesn’t necessarily happen.

So what do you do? What I think the church needs to do is have a lot of adults around so that every time the church has large group events, different adults hang out with different clusters, knowing that once they’re settled they will ultimately be socialized and get used to each other’s presence.

Junior high kids are massively different developmentally. They are very concrete in how they relate to people. They tend to think if someone likes me and accepts me I can relax and enjoy myself. So it’s easier to pull off versions of group homogeneity in Junior High ministry. By the time students hit about 9th grade, they kick into mid-adolescence and stay there until about 19-21 years old. Late adolescence brings on much more abstraction relationally: I am aware of other people, I am aware that I interact with other people, etc. Mid-adolescence can best be described as “ego-centric/abstraction” – that’s a term I have come up with. What I mean by this is that they are aware of “the other.” For example, a skater might think “I am aware of the jock and, yeah, I can be nice to them. They have some good points. But, frankly, I don’t care.” In the research I’m conducting, that seems to be developmentally appropriate to mid-adolescence because developmentally they are so stuck in trying to figure out who they are and whether they are safe in a given social setting that they do not have the energy to think outside of themselves and give much work toward reconciling relationships. Whether kids are Christians or not, they simply don’t do it.

I think we have to allow for kids in mid-adolescence to be selfish, very independent, very self-centered – that defines high school ministry as we know it. That doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to push them into positions of liking each other. Our job is to move them into late adolescence! But we need to realize that we can’t do a whole lot about it. We minister to their context but try and shepherd them on to the next developmental stage.

Kids shift from childhood to early adolescence, and then early to mid-adolescence more or less as a group when the rest of their community does. The shift from mid- to late adolescence and then into adulthood happens internally when a person actually makes choices and decides to move to the next level of autonomy and identity acceptance. For most, the shift from mid- to late happens sometime around the second year of college, and then they hit a willingness to “land” as an adult somewhere between 22/23 to as late as early 30s. Pundits, scholars and academics love to limit/label this shift as being externally related and empirically measurable, but I think that the shift is more about an internal process of accepting adult responsibility (autonomy) and who they see themselves to be (identity), and are thus more comfortable inserting themselves into the adult community (belonging). All of this is expressed in behaviors and attitudes that can sometimes be measured.

Q. If what you’re saying is true, then it seems like part of what we need to do is help kids have “markers” or “rituals” that represent what we eventually want them to experience as they develop spiritually, psychologically, and socially. They might not even fully “get” the meaning of what they’re doing now, but hopefully they will later on. Personally, I have created spaces or parts of our youth gatherings where everyone comes together to worship because Jesus died for all of us and what Jesus did transcends everything else. In this environment, I force them to accept each other. But outside of our time worshipping together, I don’t force them.

A. That’s very good, by the way.

Q. I’m thinking about the book of I Corinthians where the church had problems of segregation and not getting along. Paul points to the Lord’s table as a place where everyone must come together, like our friend was just saying, because everyone comes to Jesus the same way. What if we used communion or some other ritual in our youth groups so that we can point them to the place of coming together that God requires?

A. Great idea. I think you can do it a little bit. Around worship everyone can agree we can “lay down our arms.” But we are in a “Fight Club” society where everyone is out for themselves. High school kids are well aware of this. They can’t describe it, but they feel it. Markers are good, but think of youth camp for a moment. At the end of camp everyone is all lovey-dovey. But remember the movie Breakfast Club? Five kids from different backgrounds came together in detention hall and were friends…for the time they were in detention hall. One said, “On Monday, will we still be friends?” The answer the kids gave was “No,” they wouldn’t. On Monday, they’d be back to their clusters. So that was 20 years ago and it has gotten worse since then.

So, yes, we ought to have markers but we ought to recognize and be really careful of what we expect of them regarding those markers. And something like communion is a great idea as a marker but you can’t tell the kids, “OK, shut up and sit down. We are going to have communion and like each other.” [laughter]

Q. In my own experience, I feel like I’ve been most effective as a youth minister when I was coaching and teaching on a school campus. But my question is, with all of the Emergent conversation going on right now, is the future of youth ministry the deconstruction of youth ministry and being more specialized for these different groups and then connecting them in their safe place to have a relationship with Jesus?

A. I agree with that with one caveat, and it’s a concern that I have for the Emergent movement. There doesn’t seem to be a driving ecclesiology, a driving theology of church. This is in opposition to having a good theology of what the body of Christ means and starting there. So, on the one hand, we absolutely need to deconstruct traditional youth ministry. But in my opinion, the main shift needs to be that we have got to quit thinking that hiring a youth pastor solves the Church’s problem of caring for kids.

For a long time the Church has been using the ratio of 5:1 - five kids to one adult. We have felt that if you get that, you are doing well. I think it needs to be reversed: one kid to five adults. We need to develop a strategy of ministry across the developmental span, childhood through high school, so that by the time they graduate every kid has five adult “fans” – five adults who know their name, pray for them regularly and talk to them often. But you also have the deconstruction of allowing the kids to have their clusters, minister to them in clusters, but then have that connect eventually, not to other kids, but to the larger church body.

That’s another place I think we have missed it. We think we have to keep youth group going because that is equated with youth ministry. But I think youth group is supposed to be a bridge between the youth world and the church; yet it hasn’t functioned that way in a long time. Joint activities (like missions trips) between high schoolers and adults and joint Bible studies or home groups are great ways to get started. We should be bold and work toward that. I know it’s hard but I think it’s worth it.

Action Points:

  1. How would you respond to Chap’s assessment of youth ministry needing “deconstruction”, especially in areas where the church conceptualizes youth ministry as a separate ministry from the rest of the church?
  2. If you have not seen The Breakfast Club, rent the movie. Do you see any parallels between Chap’s research and the movie?
  3. Have you experienced frustration – as one of the participants in this Q&A had – in your attempts to get some sort of cohesion among clusters in your youth group? ˆn your experience, what makes sense about Chap’s take on the situation? What doesn’t?
  4. How are the distinctions of “adolescence”, “mid-adolescence” and “late adolescence” helpful to you? In thinking about your own students, what are the characteristics of each of those stages?
Matt Westbrook
Matt Westbrook formerly served as Project Manager for FYI when it was first becoming the Center for Youth and Family Ministry. He holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller, has a passion for college students, and is now pursuing a PhD in sociology studying youth and religious identity formation at Drew University.

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