Conflicting truths as we navigate the changes in student ministry

Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope

There are two competing truths that are attempting to live together in the youth ministry world. Truth 1) The process of adolescence is lengthening. In the 1950’s, most sociologists agreed that by the time someone was 16 they had completed the process of individuation. And in the 70’s it was around 18, then in the 90’s it was the early 20’s,and now its believed to be the late 20’s. Chap Clark has done a ton of work in helping youth workers and parents understand this process. Even TIME magazine is on board with this truth.

Truth 2) Students today are so over having youth ministry be fun and light. They are ready for deep theologyemerging worship practicesjustice ministry, and being missional.

As I have been trying to bridge the gap of these two truths, I have been coming up short. Over the past year or so I have been intentionally wrestling with these competing truths, and I keep coming to an un-politically correct conclusion: I firmly agree that while adolescence is lengthening, students are not developmentally prepared or ready for some of the deeper things of christianity.

(If your interested in how I came to this conclusion, I wrote about it here)

Because youth workers are doing youth ministry longer, it makes sense that we have our spiritual growth overflow into the heart of our ministry. But as the developmental gap widens, we have to be so much more thoughtful and aware of differentiating our issues and growing edge with those of our students.

Which leaves me wondering: Where are the books that actually equip those of us in the field who work with middle school and high school students that address this phenomena on the front end?

Because, if this lengthening is real, then the implication is not just that students are behaving like adolescents well into their 20’s. It also means that current high school students are behaving and processing the world the same way middle schoolers were just 10 years earlier. This truth leaves me with some unresolved questions:

If that is true, then shouldn’t high school ministry today look more similar to jr high ministry of 10 years ago, opposed to looking more like college ministry?

If this is where our high schoolers are at, what in the world are we supposed to do with our middle schoolers?

How do we walk with students who are engaged in and exposed to very adult material and are even less able to process these experiences because they are even more developmentally delayed then we are aware of?

Are you noticing this in your ministries?

Student ministry is changing at break-neck speeds because students are becoming more and more complex. They are exposed to more complex and adult issues at a time in their lives when they are becoming less developmentally prepared to deal with them. While this is very overwhelming, I am committed to figuring it out. I want to walk well with students through this crazy season of their lives. I so want God to use my feeble efforts to be part of the redeeming process, and not be the part that needs to be redeemed. Thankfully, no matter what, God uses all of it (the good, the bad, and the ugly), as part of his authoring and perfecting of their faith. Thanks be to God!

I have recently been invited to be a regular contributor at youthmin.org.  It is a great group of people who are trying to mix up the conversation regarding student ministry.  If you don't already read them, I highly recommend it.  Have a great day!