youth ministry 3.0, part 4

youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.

we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.

by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.

so, here’s the fourth bit, from chapter 2:

The growth of youth culture

The emergence of adolescence – and, particularly, the expansion of adolescence and the rise of youth culture – is the result of a symbiotic dance between physiology and culture. Here’s what I mean: in 1904, when Granville Stanley Hall (Yo, G!) published Adolescence, he placed the boundaries where, in a sense, they still are. In another sense, the boundaries have completely changed, radically changed.

Adolescence is the period between puberty and adulthood; or, more accurately, the period of life between puberty and a culture’s expectation of adult-like engagement in culture at large (historically put: being a fully contributing member of society). That’s the part that hasn’t changed.

What has changed, among other things, are the actual ages these descriptions represent. Funny thing is: the low-end marker has changed due to physiology, and the upper-end marker has changed due to cultural issues. And, of course, it’s never quite that simple (as if the pubertal entry-gate into adolescence didn’t have any cultural input or implications).

When Hall described the adolescent task, he was talking about a period of time 18 months long. That’s right: a year and a half. That’s it. No wonder there wasn’t much of a “youth culture” at the time! At that time (in the early 1900s), the average age for the onset of puberty in girls was 14.5 . And Hall suggested that our shifting culture was allowing an 18-month window of time – until about the age of 16 – to wrestle with the adolescent tasks of identity, autonomy and affinity.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The entry-point marker to adolescence (the biological marker of puberty) had dropped, for girls, to an average of 13 years old. And the “exit point” (of course, it’s not a hard-and-fast exit point) had seen a cultural shift to 18 years old. Now teenagers had an average of 6 years to wrestle with these adolescent issues. And – this is important – this quantity of years also meant that the quantity of teenagers engaged in this process was a massively higher percentage of culture at large (not only due to population growth, but due to the span of the demographic), and, therefore, had significantly more sway over culture at large .

Fast-forward again to the turn of the millennium. The average age for the onset of puberty in girls is now 10.5 to 11 years old. And the culturally accepted norm for when an adolescent is expected to function as a contributing member of society (and have made significant progress in the three tasks of adolescence)? The number is fuzzier than ever; but most agree it’s somewhere in the mid- to upper-20s.

So – hold onto your youth pastor job descriptions – adolescence is now 15 or more years long. This reality is both impacted by culture, and has a massive impact on culture .

14 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 4”

  1. Amazing to think that with a growing period of unrest and identity formation, we in America STRUGGLE with giving adolescents an entry point into adulthood by means of a “rite of passage.” Yes, a driver’s license at 16, voting and cigarettes at 18 (Ooo!), and alcohol at 21. If students are questioning their purpose and identity during this time, what are we doing to help them wrestle with these questions as they develop?

    (GREAT Stuff, Mark!)

  2. It’s sad that we “adults” are failing to usher in our children as adults. Is as if we (adults) don’t know what we’re doing yet to be able to teach it to our youngsters. I think, now more than ever, we need to broaden our focus. Yes teens are important…but so are their parents. Reach out to them, place mentors in their lives as well. Teach the parents how to parent in a way that raises their children to grow up; and continue to surround our teens with adults who will guide and usher them into the world and the body of faith as spiritualy mature, independent, and contributing adults.

  3. Culture has not given us too many mile-posts for when adolescence ends. Is it at 16, when you can drive and work a full-time job? Is it at 18, when you can buy cigarettes and join the military? Is it 21, when you can purchase alcohol? Or is it at 25, when you can finally rent a car without financial penalty? Without the cultural signposts for adulthood, the end of adolescence becomes nebulous.

    And how does this 15-year period of adolescence affect the youth ministers? Many youth pastors nowadays are under the age of 30, myself included. Am I an adolescent ministering to fellow adolescents? And who is discipling the adolescent youth pastors? Do we now need a youth pastor for the youth pastors?

  4. something that I’ve always thought was a bit of a frustrating topic when dealing with teens is the whole sex issue. Historically speaking, people got married and began having children (and therefore sex) at age 13 or so. My grandmother, for example, was married at age 13, and had her first child at 15. It has only been within the last 100 years that adolescence has expanded, and we are now telling our teens that they still need to wait for marriage, yet the culturally accepted time for that is getting later and later. However, biologically, teens are still in the same place that their grandparents and great-grandparents were; in fact, they are reaching puberty at an earlier age.

    I have often wondered if that’s part of the reason that teens are so rebellious; biologically, they are “adults”, and even just 100 years ago, would have been treated as such. Now, our society is trying to keep them from reaching that stage more and more: how many of us know a 25-27 year old who is still living at home with his/her parents?

    I think that we need to find a way to bring the two together; help the kids deal with what is going on biologically, yet still within the accepted societal norms…or we change the norms. It was just over 100 years ago that bathing every day became common, thanks to Queen Victoria; now we can’t imagine any other way. Why can’t we change what the norms are?

  5. I want to echo Josh.

    Understanding adolescence is very crucial but we may need to refocus our energies: times, budgets, resources and go to the ones (parents) who will have a far more reaching impact.

  6. I wonder if the cultural standards for adulthood are chainging, how long will it take for the legal rites of passage to change also?

    Like when will be move the required ages for licenses, voting and drinking up?

    Also – this sounds influenced by Christopher Noxon’s book Rejuvenille, which I think I heard of from this blog?

  7. I think that the coming storm in youth ministry, the big shift, at least in churches and their families, is pushing and equipping parents in youth ministry.

    It will have to be more than just providing programs for them for instruction and expecting them to attend. We’ve all experienced attendance letdowns for parent meetings. We will have to find ways to be proactive in engaging them by going to them instead of them coming to us.

  8. Probably the greatest implications of the expansion of adolescents is that we haven’t yet caught up in our colleges and seminaries to having many people recognize this change. As a youth pastor in a large evangelical church and a seminary grad I see a huge shift needing to happen so that we can both connect and retain this generation of students who are continuing their adolescent development into their 20’s. The obvious shift in youth ministry is that we must develop and grow communities that care for students both in their college years and beyond. How do we do that. Sadly, that isn’t yet being taught in most seminaries.

  9. Could this explain why teenagers are so drawn to young youth pastors, and why so many 20-something youth pastors quit by the time they reach age 30?

    Youth ministry is often seen by ministers as being a ‘stepping stone’ to “real” ministry — possibly a result of this extended adolescence as well. Youth ministry is what you do until you’re 30 or 40 (until you’re no longer hip!) and then you enter “real” ministry.

  10. I think that this trend is part of what is behind the rampant sexuality in adolescence…

    Ask someone to wait a few years to engage in sexual activity… maybe most would sign up…

    ask them to wait from puberty at 11 until they get married… maybe in their 30’s … most feel like that is so long away that it might as well be another life…

    I wonder if we need to learn… create and entirely new tact on this issue?

  11. Now more than ever, it seems that there is a need for a holistic model of church. As the lines of adolescence blur more and more, so must the church be willing to rethink what “youth ministry” looks like.

    It will take great courage and creativity on the part of those who choose to collaborate towards “youth ministry 3.0”, as we continue to help students encounter Jesus amongst the growing expanse of adolescence.

  12. I think we are in a for a huge change (As Marko’s book points to). The age groups used to be so different and predictable. Now some pre-teens have the maturity (physical and mental)of a high schooler. Then it seems now some who are college age seem to be at the level of high school junior or senior should be (if I make sense). It just seems that adolescence is becoming a big gap. People might be living longer but they are taking there sweet time “aging”. Our ministries now seem to big for one person to handle, even if it’s a small church. The age/grade groups are so fractured that it does not seem logical to just to minister to junior high, then high school, and then college. It’s seems like junior high needs to be expanded to other grades and college needs more than present student age and post student age. Basically what I am saying is the gap is huge and we need to fill it before it gets out of hand and we continue to lose certain age groups from church.

  13. I have looked into adolescent development before and was very curious when I discovered the same things which Marko has recorded in this chapter. What I find most interesting is that if adolescence is not finding its closure until mid to late twenties, then what does that say for youth ministers? I am 22 and have been in the field for three years now. Back in early 1900, I would have been an adult. Today, I am lumped with the “young-adults” (which is a nice way of saying I am still a kid). I personally resonate with the development issues Marko brings up. I am still going through these developments. So should we hire youth ministers who are thirty and older? Most people seem to think that’s when you begin losing your ‘edge’ in youth ministry. However, developmentally, you are just beginning to have the ‘edge’ you need – being at the point we want our students to reach. Which do we want? The still-adolescent leading adolescence, or a bone fide adult leading?

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