young adults as youth ministry volunteers

in a recent edition of Slant33.com, i responded to this question:

If young adult brains aren’t yet fully formed (particularly in the areas responsible for wisdom and decision making), what implications does that have for working with young adult volunteers?

click through to see michelle lang and paul martin’s responses, but here’s mine:

Here’s a rub I regularly experience when talking to rooms full of youth workers. I’ll mention the new realities of extended adolescence, and the findings referred to in the question above. Then I’ll ask: how many of you are under 30? Usually, somewhere between 30% and 50% raise their hands. My regular gag is to say, “Well, it’s nice to have so many teenagers in the room today!”

I’ve never been (or at least haven’t been for a long time) one of those youth workers who thinks that only young adults make good youth leaders. I like diversity. But, there’s no denying that some of my most wonderful youth ministry volunteers over the years have been in the 18 – 25 year-old range.

And while I’d like to think my particular young adult leaders were always a serious cut above average, the reality I’d rather not admit is: they are – on average – physiologically limited in wisdom, decision-making, prioritization, impulse control, and a bunch of other skills I’d sure like my volunteer leaders to possess.

Part of my struggle with this, though, is that I’m still very unconvinced that the whole teenage brain thing is a nature thing (god’s design, you might say), and is more likely to be a nurture thing (the result of our collective restrictions on young adults, keeping them from moving into adulthood or using their brains as adults). And, as I’m buying into the notion that young adults (and even teenagers — particularly older teenagers) are fully capable — whether behavioral indicators show this or not — of “being adult”, I’m forced to wrestle with a few things:

  1. Extended adolescence is not the fault of young adults. Sure, there are slackers. I’m guessing there always have been. But I think it’s wiser for us to examine ourselves, our culture, our churches, our homes, and stop pointing the finger of judgement at 20-somethings. Collectively, we’ve created the culture that isolates teenagers and young adults from adults and adulthood; we’ve created extended adolescence. They’re merely living into our expectations (“You’re not yet an adult”).
  2. It seems possible for some (a few) post-high school teenagers and young 20-somethings to step into adulthood, in some cases very quickly, to reverse the extended adolescent trend, or at least side-step it. I’m not talking about those outliers who naturally move into adulthood “early” (by today’s norms), and would have in any culture, in any era; I’m talking about an average 18 or 21 year old newly leaning into the capabilities they already possess. What is required? In short: meaningful responsibility and expectation (can you see where this is going, as it pertains to young adults in youth ministry?).
  3. But don’t even start comparing your experience as a young adult in youth ministry, in 1982, to that of young adults today. Not the same thing, and you’re probably being revisionist in your memory anyhow.

A large church brought me in a couple years ago to help them think about young adult ministry. They knew things were not going well. But it was way bleaker than I expected, or, I think, than they realized. In a church of a few thousand, there were maybe 25 or so actively engaged 20-somethings. About a dozen of them attended a super-lame class on Sunday mornings that felt like death by crockpot. And another dozen or so found their primary connection to the church as volunteers in the middle school ministry. Of course, here’s the tension:

  • Many of the church leadership (but, to his credit, not the senior pastor) thought the best response was to hire a ‘young adults pastor’ and create (my words) a new pocket of isolation, keeping ‘emerging adults’ (the kinder term now being used to describe the third segment of the adolescent experience — formerly called ‘older adolescents’) disconnected from the adult world. Of course, this is all spun under the banner of “let’s create a space that’s uniquely theirs” (which often actually means, “let’s create a space for them so my space can stay uniquely mine”).
  • The young adults serving on the middle school team were the sharpest of the 2 dozen young adults in the church, and — on average — ahead of the curve on the plodding move to adulthood.
  • But, a church (that church) can’t say, “Our intentional ministry for young adults is to have them work with the middle school ministry.”

Or can they?

Maybe the answer to the question at the top of this page isn’t to “boundary” or limit young adults in youth ministry. Maybe we need to take the counter-intuitive step of giving them more responsibility. Or, just, giving them the responsibility we would give any adult, without a bunch of coddling and hand-holding.

Some might read this and respond, “Well, of course, we already do that.” Sure. Maybe you do (maybe you don’t). Maybe you never read about teenage brain development and extended adolescence, and maybe you never bought into the idea (or, I’m thinking: myth) that “this is just the way things are.” Or maybe you were never intentional at all, and were merely perpetuating stereotypes about who makes the “best” youth ministry volunteers.

But I’m thinking that meaningful responsibility, spending time with adults (on an age-diverse ministry team), all covered in a watchful layer of intentionality and a leaning toward developing volunteers of all sorts – well, that might just be the best young adult ministry possible.
What do you think?

15 thoughts on “young adults as youth ministry volunteers”

  1. absolutely! of all the churches in my area, we’re all swamped on the “best way” to go about young adult ministry– from renting out a bar every sunday night and having a young adult service– to helping them fit into small groups within the church. I find the motto around here has become– if they dont want in a small group–just help them serve somewhere… i find the most meaningful times aren’t when we’ve “created a young adult ministry” but helped them see themselves as a working part of the body. THAT has been the biggest factor of what has kept kids in the church after highschool.

  2. You make some really good points, and I agree with the majority of them. I’ve always been a fan of having volunteers of all ages, as I think it’s important for people to give back to their community through volunteerism—and what better way to start than with the church itself? I cherish my young adult volunteers just as much as I treasure my adult volunteers, and I think that’s the way it should be.

  3. While I firmly believe that SOME of what “makes” adolescents and emerging adults who/what they are is directly related to today’s cultural milieu and societal expectations (both good and bad) regarding that specific demographic, these questions and concerns are not new. In the high middle ages, the age of entry into a religious life was raised to better fit with things such as decision-making, prioritizing, critical thinking, self-control, etc. Authorities bemoaned the behavior of university students (who came from various social classes). Knights-in-training (also from various social classes) had a distinct culture and, like the university students, were described in ways not unlike our current understanding of adolescents and emerging adults. Yes – even that emerging adulthood issue of when-will-they-finally-grow-up was quite prevalent way back when, showing up in everything from homilies to conduct literature to popular romances. None of this discounts the issues raised above, issues which we personally face on a daily basis working with college-aged leaders in parachurch youth ministry. But I wonder if a broader historical context – one which acknowledges the continuity (along with the obvious cultural shifts) of the issue – would help settle some of our angst and encourage us to look for wise responses that extend beyond our immediate context.

  4. We have had a multi-generational youth worker team for years. The 30+ workers mentor the younger workers. Over and over again I have seen young adults grow up faster than their peers because of serving in the youth program. It’s never perfect and I always have a few “shake the head” moments but I would n’t stop having young adults serve our youth. Great article Mark

  5. When I meet with the young adults that I mentor, I see the most growth happen when I bring my 10 year old son along. Whether we’re just hanging out (they love to teach him how to skateboard or disc golf better) or doing some kind of a service project, they love the opportunity to pour into him like a little brother. The sense of accomplishment and meaning that they find in teaching him how to do something is incredibly significant to them.

  6. Maybe I’m harsh in saying this, but I believe if there are slackers, there are slackees. Much like creation challenges us to see the Creator, the notion of slacking has to be owned somewhat by the boomers and busters. Yes, they wanted to provide more and better for their children, but have helped produce a generation or two of entitlement expectations. If adolescence has been lengthened, then part of that responsibility lies on the previous group that helped spawn them.
    The church is in serious need of integration. I’ve watched as whole age groups have ripped themselves away from their mooring of church to create the church that reaches their own. This is sad in so many ways, even if it is healthy in some. Pastors and elders must learn to mentor, train and create succession plans that are relevant and effective. The emerging adult church (for lack of a better term) needs to learn to submit and honor what was built before (and for) them.

  7. I am a 26 year old middle school pastor. Half of my volunteer staff are young adults. I am also actively involved in a separate young adult small group. I have found that people(adults, young adults, teenagers and kids) who are in community and serving feel more connected to the church. That doesn’t mean you have to serve and commune in the same place.

    random observations:
    - Pairing up young adults and adults to lead a MS small group together works really well. Different perspectives, a variety of strengths and equal responsibility given to both parties.

    -Being apart of the young adult community allows me to recruit volunteers effectively. It’s a huge bonus.

    -when I share in my young adult small group, I share with boundaries and transparency. I think this increases credibility with my volunteer leaders and shows I am growing and in process too.

    -every young adult group has some level of drama, sometimes that spills over to our middle school ministry team dynamics

    -young adults do need more coaching. But it’s worth it if they are teachable.

  8. And if we were hesitant to use young adults as volunteers… shouldn’t we be hesitant to use them as student leaders? I encore your thoughts here Marko. It’s wise, it’s Biblical… Young adults (AND student leaders) have been some of my best leaders over the years.

  9. Jonathan (and others), thanks for the comment, and I agree. But I think you might have missed my point (or I wasn’t clear). Of course, everyone who can get them uses young adults as youth ministry volunteers. And of course, some will be wonderful. In fact, I think the default for many had been that ONLY young adults should be youth ministry volunteers (agism in youth ministry!).

    My point, instead, is that with the rapid extension of adolescence and the findings amount underdeveloped brains in young adults (and teenagers), we need to address young adult volunteers differently – WAY more intentionally.

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