Youth ministry in an age of delayed adulthood

How does lengthened adolescence impact the call of youth ministry? And what is, or what should be our response?

Chap Clark Image Chap Clark | Sep 7, 2005

The commercial nails it. A thirtysomething, unkempt man sits at his parents’ kitchen table playing solitaire, complaining about the “workspace” conditions of his bedroom. His parents respond, “What do you think this is…a Holiday Inn?” (Wild laughter.) He’s obviously bothered by their sarcasm, but what is he to do?

After all, he’s only an adolescent.

In a culture that has few if any signposts marking the line between adolescence and adulthood, advertisers have thrown in our face what almost no one wants to talk about—adolescence is lengthening, no one knows what it means to be an adult. Today’s adults want to look like kids, crank their high school “hits,” and passionately cheer on the team. Today’s adolescents see these adults aspiring to live like teenagers, and subsequently they see no reason to make the difficult journey to adulthood.

And into this cultural mess tramps youth ministry, commissioned to lead adolescents into an adult commitment to God and the church. How does lengthened adolescence impact the call of youth ministry? And what is—or what should be—our response?

What Is Adolescence?

Coined in the late 1800s, the term “adolescence” stems from the Latin, adolescere, meaning “to grow up.” The idea of a time when a person is “no longer a child but not yet an adult” was something new. Previously one was either a kid or an adult. Throughout history children were trained in rites of passage preparing them for adulthood, and they experienced rituals that clearly marked their entrance into adulthood.

But as society started to loosen up, it took away the markers defining young people’s movement from one developmental stage to another. Especially in Western, urban cultures, we needed a name for the emerging segment of the population that was neither child nor adult. Thus adolescence, as a reasonably definable life-stage, was born.

Adolescence can best be understood as a sociological and psychological time of life, with physiological markers pointing the way (such as puberty). And while developmentalists tend to line up adolescence with biology, social adolescence actually starts when young people begin breaking away from their child roles in the family. In Western cultures this usually begins around age 10 or 11. But when does adolescence end? The only answer developmental psychologists give us—and they rarely go into very much depth on this one—is when a culture says so.

The problem is that when a culture lacks rites of passage designed to prepare and train young people for adulthood (like ours), and then removes almost every definable ritual signpost from childhood to adulthood (like ours), it’s very difficult to agree on when adolescence ends and adulthood begins.

What Is Adulthood?

There are two broad assumptions that define adulthood in our culture:

  1. I know and am fairly comfortable with who I am.
  2. I am willing to take responsibility for myself.

When is someone an adult in our culture? When there’s financial independence, when there are vocational commitments—when you’re living on your own. And it used to be simple.

In 1900 most young people were ready to take control of their lives by age 16 or 17. The rules of the road, the boundaries, the norms of living as an adult were handed down by parents, extended family, and the community. Roles were tightly defined and controlled, and few deviated from what the community dictated.

Soon, however, young people adhered to fewer and fewer rules and norms. Dating from the Enlightenment and becoming even more the norm, young people simply weren’t automatically adopting the societal constraints of their parents’ generation. On one hand, this newfound freedom was like pouring gasoline on fire; on the other hand, the end goal of adolescence—becoming an adult—was increasingly less clear and attainable.

By the 1960s the end of adolescence was still generally accepted to be around age 18 to 19, for young people left high school and pretty much decided who they were and what they were going to do with their lives. While the social revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was fueled by the dreams of a newly emerging young adult force willing to take responsibility to right the wrongs of former generations, it further lengthened adolescence. For those who could afford it, college moved from being the preparation phase for young adults to halfway houses for old high schoolers. “What are you going to study?” was a question that actually made sense in the early 1970s—but it’s met by blank stares today! In contemporary society, graduate school is often a place to “find oneself,” and numerous studies attempt to understand the historically unheard of phenomenon of 30-somethings who have Ph.D.s living at home or waiting tables who have yet to “discover” what they want to do.

The Hyped Myth of Generation X

Certainly there are differences between the way those younger than 30 think, behave, and process than those older than 50 do. But when we focus on this polarization, we fail to ask some of the tougher questions about societal erosion in a rapidly changing world. A careful read of Gen-X literature from the last 15 years reveals a tidal wave of sweeping assumptions and untested theories I believe should be challenged in light of the changing landscape of adolescence.

First, Gen-X “characteristics” are anything but precise: slackers, non-conformists, self-centered, unmotivated. But these are not the values of “grown up” Gen-Xers, for they’ve neatly stepped in line with societal values—make money, buy a video camera and an SUV when you have kids, and take vacations at theme parks and ski resorts. So what we thought were the markings of a generational gap are actually signs of delayed adulthood.

Second, and related, is the impact of postmodernism. Suspicion of authority, fear of institutional control, and a your-story-is-no-more-valid-than-my-story mentality is by no means limited to an adolescent or even Gen-X worldview—today it’s true for most adults as well! David Elkind of Tufts University (Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance), a leading voice in cultural change, argues that most relational, social rules are passé and postmodern parents and adults have abandoned kids and adolescents in order to “take care of their own needs.” Thus in a postmodern world, where kids have been on their own to discover what it means to live, relativism is the emerging philosophy of the day—and adulthood is a distant, unattractive endgame of adolescence. And the young float through life trying to survive one day at a time.

The Challenge for the Future

What does God say about these floating, not-yet adults? Youth workers must lead with theology, following with developmentally appropriate and sensitive philosophies and programs. One approach to the problem of delayed adulthood is recognizing three stages of adolescence—early (roughly 10 to 14 years old), middle (14 to 17/19), and late (17/19 to mid-to-late 20s).

Early Adolescence (Junior High Ministry)

1. The importance of family. Because an early adolescent is more a child than an adult, the family still plays the major role of identification and security. Thus early adolescents are usually far more willing to participate in family-based activities and parent-child discussions than their older siblings—they even have parents (their own and others) as youth leaders. To the seasoned youth worker, this may not seem to be the case, but look deeper: Junior high has always been a tough time for kids, but today it’s so threatening that adult presence and support is a godsend to kids. (And for the most part, they even recognize it.)

2. Safety, Priority #1. Ford Motor Company’s slogan from a few years back absolutely defines the most vital need and desire of early adolescents. Youth ministry at this stage has less to do with how much fun the program is than how safe they feel. How we treat them from up front, what skits we use, how we choose small groups, how we handle rude outbursts or physical play—these are among the most important factors in creating a safe place to engage in the group experience.

3. Fitting in. Early adolescents have always been more concrete thinkers than their high school counterparts, but don’t be hung up on this fact when it comes to teaching. To most early adolescents, the only thing that really matters is how they perceive themselves fitting in. This idea goes beyond safety to kids’ sense of self in a strange and unfamiliar relational setting (the same goes for school, by the way). For example, when you teach about God’s love one day, and the next sternly warn kids that they’re not welcome if they can’t behave, the message is lost.

Middle Adolescence (Senior High Ministry)

1. The importance of friendships. They’ve always been an important aspect of the high school world. But for middle adolescents—who live in a culture where adult systems have abandoned them to discover rules, norms, values, and lifestyle choices on their own—friends play a far more significant role in their lives than in previous decades. This is no longer about “cliques”—it’s about tribal-like clusters of four to eight friends who’re almost like family in each other’s eyes. To attempt to break down a student’s tribe is to misunderstand how important it is to that student. We must understand and honor the sociological reality of clusters. The days when friendships were simply cliques are long gone.

2. Family still matters, but in a different way. A common myth in youth ministry is that teenagers want to “separate” from their families during adolescence. This is an incomplete and possibly dangerous point of view. Kids don’t want to leave their families behind, even if they sometimes say it. They long to find themselves and make their own decisions while still being connected to their families! This balance is delicate for the healthiest of families, and youth workers must work to help families during these times of struggle.

3. Huge swings in commitment levels are normal. Thirty years ago, when high school students made a commitment—to Christ, to friends, to church—that meant they could be trusted to at least attempt to fulfill the terms of that commitment. But today commitment is filled with exceptions, excuses, reasons, and blaming. It’s not the idea of commitment that’s changed—studies show that kids still know the basic definition of commitment—it’s the application of commitment that’s become extremely difficult for middle adolescents to handle.

This new phase of the adolescent journey is perhaps the most difficult, for the push and pull of being stuck between child and adult with no light at the end of the tunnel creates a moral desert for someone still so far removed from a clear sense of who they are. This is a time to learn from the swings—in emotion, in loyalties, and in commitments. Youth workers must allow middle adolescents to be middle adolescents, and not try to force them into superficial or feigned levels of premature commitment and responsibility.

4. The need for immediate perceived relevance in all aspects of the program. Because they are “middle,” abstract teaching and concepts must be grounded in perceived reality and everyday experience. Teaching on sexuality, for instance, cannot only focus on the “wait” idea but also on the immediate consequences of violating God’s plan for human sexuality. Practicing the essence of the Christian faith is the name of the game for this stage. Loving relationships, experiencing God through spiritual disciplines, serving the poor and oppressed—these are the most helpful ways to communicate the gospel to the middle adolescent.

5. Every kid needs an older friend/mentor. Because many kids today feel abandoned by adult systems and relationships, they need older friends. They do need guides, coaches, and teachers, but they need mentors without an agenda even more. They need people on whom they can rely, adults they can trust. Postmodern youth ministry must be marked by a vast number of adults who love kids one at a time!

Late Adolescence (College and Young Adult Ministry)

1. They’re still adolescents! Today’s college and young adult ministry is more like high school ministry of the 1970s. College leaders, churches, and organizations like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade must recognize that many of the models and strategies of the past have been built on the assumption that college students are young adults. But that assumption can no longer be trusted. To be sure, there are those rare students who’ve come of age sooner than their peers, but the vast majority of college students and working, young adults—all twentysomethings—are still adolescents. This means they need foundational teaching, directive adult leadership, and careful theological reflection and mentoring.

2. They need a gentle shove into adulthood. In all stages of adolescence, the goal of youth ministry must be to help young people become adults who are grounded in Jesus Christ. Coming to know and follow Christ means humbly and gratefully acknowledging who they are before the Lord, seeking their identity in relation to him, and taking full responsibility for how they respond to God and his world.

Youth workers must take careful note—in an age where adulthood is delayed and adolescence is lengthening—to help kids grow into people who know who they are and who take responsibility for their lives.

This article originally appeared in Youthworker Journal, November/December 2000.

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Chap Clark Image
Chap Clark

Chapman “Chap” Clark, PhD, is the Associate Provost for Strategic Projects and Professor of Youth, Family and Culture at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World (with Dee Clark, Baker, 2007), Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Baker Academic, 2004; and Hurt 2.0 in 2011), and co-author with Kara Powell of Sticky Faith (Zondervan, 2011), Deep Justice in a Broken World (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2008) and Deep Ministry in a Shallow World (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2006).

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