For as long as I have done youth ministry and for everything I have read, it seems like all of us in student ministry are all aiming for an 18 year old finish line to our discipleship training. We bust our humps for kids in their middle school and high school years with the hopes that we will launch fully formed disciples of Jesus into the big bad world where they will be ready to join ministries, attend churches, say no to all the temptations their culture throws at them, and then feel like failures when none of that happens.
Maybe what we are aiming for is short sided and outdated?
Everyone agrees that adolescence is lengthening.
Except, nobody is living like this is true. Every single person on the planet from YS to Time magazine has recognized that 18 is no longer the end of individuation. Now, 18 is simply the half way point. Many would agree that adolescence isn't concluding until the late 20's and I might argue, it might never end now. #feeltheburn
It is taking young people a really long time to figure out who they are, where they belong, and how they are going to contribute. All the things we have geared our student ministry toward now doesn't complete for 10 more years. If this is such a no brainer, then why are all of our ministries, all of the curriculum we use, and all the expectations we have for people when they graduate not taking any of this into consideration?
What if our student ministries were designed to simply help our students navigate mid-adolescence?
Developmentally we can not longer launch students. At best we can simply hand them off to the next step in ministry. This means that we are a care-taking ministry. This is both good news and bad news.
The good news is that we can put to death all of our misguided expectations and horror when our students crash and burn in college and beyond. Our 18 year olds are just starting to enter, hopefully, late adolescence. We are simply called to make a strong case for Christianity and the Church. Very similar to how many of us have seen middle school ministry. Big fun, intro faith formation, and keep them around for the main event, high school ministry. But now, our high school ministry is much more like middle school ministry.
The bad news is that there is no next step ministry. In the old model, we simply had to keep middle schoolers around and plug them into high school group. Now we catapult them into the big, bad world with no safety net. They have been lied to that they are adults and ready for all this freedom, but have no tools and take zero responsibility for their actions, only delaying adolescence even longer. This is really bad news, because all I can control is my middle school and high schoolers experience. I am forced to trust some mysterious system for them to plug into next.
Even worse news is that college ministries are pretending that the kids who plug into their ministries are the same as college kids of a generation ago. They are not the world changers of years gone by. They are simply late adolescence who are immature and not quite ready to take their life and faith seriously. The leadership is expecting a much higher level of commitment and integrity that is developmentally simply not attainable for college aged kids. (Freshmen and Sophomores for sure.) And the combination of unrealistic expectations from these students youth pastors and college ministry leaders with their very slow climb out of adolescence, means that our kids are simply getting lost in the shuffle.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
That, I am not sure. I am not called to college ministry or young adult ministry. I am trusting Jesus that those leading those ministries are wrestling through the data, the stories, and with the Holy Spirit as to how to effectively contextualize ministry. I do know for me and for my student ministry colleagues, we must walk in the light and in reality, not in how we wish things were.
Our students are not ready for so much of what we are giving them. We are either way over their heads, or even worse, we are forcing them to live a dualistic life which they will quickly jettison once they leave our pen. We must make more space for our students to be much further back on the spiritual formation time line. We must love them, throw away the guilt, shame, and lines in the sand, and mostly make a compelling case for Christianity, AND THE CHURCH, so when God does grab a hold of their hearts and are ready to come back, they will have only positive memories and experiences to guide them back home!
May the Lord have mercy on us and on our students!