“Tension” is probably a good word to use for the adolescent stage of life. Typically the parent tries to keep his child in childhood, while the child pushes toward adulthood. Although approached with immaturity, adolescents want to think and act in ways that are adult-like. On this side of parenthood, I understand both sides. However, it’s one thing to find the balance as a parent or fight for it as a child, but how do we address this as youth workers?

Most full-time, and especially part-time, youth workers could easily be considered overworked, undervalued, and therefore underpaid. But we love students. Student ministry is our life. It’s both what we do and who we are. Most of us will do whatever it takes to reach students; we don’t do it for affirmation from other people and would do it for free anyway. So with that heart, I’ll introduce a thought that might surprise you coming from a fellow youth worker: we need to expand our job descriptions.

Traditionally when “youth ministry” is mentioned, we think of middle and high schools, but I’ve noticed that this is neglecting, missing, or possibly ignoring the reality of the adolescent stage. This crucial stage starts earlier than middle school and lasts longer than high school—and the church needs to address the entire stage.

Adolescence Has Accelerated

The English word for adolescence comes from the Latin verb adolescere, which means “to grow up.” Sociologically the term speaks of those who are trying to bridge the gap between dependent childhood and self-sufficient adulthood. Adulthood is the period when the individual is responsible for her own conduct, support, and choices. There’s no doubt kids are pushing for this earlier than ever.

From a faith perspective, adolescence is that period of life when an individual is in process of transfer from a dependent faith to an independent faith. During this process, parents struggle in allowing/helping the child to embrace accountability to God rather than to them. Adulthood is the period when the individual has embraced accountability to God rather than parents.

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The ages considered to be part of adolescence vary by culture, but in the U.S., it was traditionally considered to begin around age 13 and end around 24. Today, in most contexts, the front end has been accelerated to the ages of 10 or 11.

Call it postmodernism, emerging culture, or whatever, but the things our church was doing for fifth and sixth graders wasn’t relative to their lives anymore—at least for a lot of them. Although it was hard to imagine, and some parents didn’t want to admit it, a lot of fifth graders were feeling like children’s ministry in our church was too young for them. Blame it on the media or today’s culture, but these kids are pushing toward adulthood faster than ever.

Starting Earlier

About four years ago, I started paying very close attention: while some fifth graders were still playing with dolls, others not only knew what sex was, but talked about it often—and a few were having physical interaction with the subject. Some would cry at camp because they were away from their families for the first time, while others couldn’t wait to get away for some freedom and were bummed when they had to go back home. Some ran to their moms or dads when they were picked up; others would yell, “Why did you come so early? I told you nine o’clock!”

With these dynamics in my context, we quickly recognized that the AWANA program wasn’t as effective as it once was. The Scripture memory games and relationships they had with the adult leaders were great, but we weren’t addressing the world they lived in. The fifth grade world had changed and we hadn’t. I was concerned because there were dozens of fifth and sixth graders in our church that weren’t involved anywhere. Either our church was going to continue to fall behind and lose out on ministering to these kids, or we needed to change with the students.

Our sixth graders at the time, although intimidated, were included in our middle school ministry. We always knew that there was a big difference between sixth and eighth graders, but sixth graders were too far beyond the children’s program in our church—and many of them were in middle school anyway. But in many ways they were still distant from the older kids. They had different lunch hours, went to classes in a different area, and were still dealing with fear of being canned, remembering their locker combination, changing classes, and eighth graders picking on them. They were at the bottom of the totem pole both at school and in our ministry. Our conclusion was to empower someone who could lead and create a ministry specifically for this age stage.

Tension in Change

Although we kept the fifth and sixth grade AWANA program (and still have it today) and had this ministry on a different night than AWANA, my hunch was that when we launched this new ministry the students involved in AWANA would want to be a part of this ministry. I quickly recognized that this could create tension.

Three years ago we launched Ascent, our new fifth and sixth grade ministry. Kids that weren’t involved in our church were coming and even inviting friends. But sure enough, many kids slowly stopped going to AWANA, which caused some tense conversations. Two comments really stand out to me: “We can’t compete with what you guys are doing,” and “They just like going to that ministry because of the games.” I don’t want to address the first comment— we weren’t competing, and if there was a sense of competition…well, I said I wasn’t going to comment. The second comment couldn’t be further from truth. Games are a very small part of this ministry. We worship through music for about fifteen minutes, teach for about twenty, and have small groups discussing the topic of the night. In the beginning and at the end of the night, there’s time to hang out and play around. The reality was that kids were coming to Ascent, not because of the games, but because we were discussing their world and helping them live in it more than we were before.

Benefits to Our Student Ministry

With the natural push for adult-like life, we’re now able to intentionally encourage them into developing their own faith and moving away from their parents’. We use their momentum. Our middle school ministry is reaping the benefits of much more spiritually mature seventh graders. They’ve already been forced to think through the memory verses or Bible stories from AWANA, and have been challenged to start thinking about embracing their own faith. Students are used to people outside of their family context investing into their lives. The discipleship process starts earlier, increasing the depth of our entire student ministries.

The Other End

Today most people between the ages of 18 and 24 are still transitioning into adulthood, but are not there yet—complete independence isn’t yet gained, possibly not even wanted. In most contexts, the pressures from society and parents to continue education after high school was far less 20 years ago than it is today. Beyond that, the potential for being able to support a family, buy a home, etc., without a college education was much more probable. Far more high school grads chose to start in the workforce, move out, gain independence, and thus enter adult life.

However, because of the demands of today’s workforce and Boomer parents, the pressure for a college education is more than ever. In many contexts, graduating high school has become a transition into the next stage of education versus a major life change into independent adulthood. Thus today’s college students are much like high school students of 20 years ago. For many, the time to act as an adult is extended until after college. Interestingly, this cultural phenomenon has changed this entire age stage, even if college education isn’t pursued.

College age people (whether in school or not) even refer to themselves as “kids.” When the college ministry is planning something, they say things like, “How many kids will be there?” At first it was surprising, but now I realize this is simply how they view themselves. Most don’t financially support themselves, have very little sense of responsibility and discipline, and sadly many (even those who grew up in church) haven’t truly embraced a personal faith. Whether you view it from a faith or sociological perspective, this stage of life is still adolescence.

Too often the church acts like many parents in society: “Once you’re 18, you’re on your own.” Barna Research reports a minimum 58% drop-off rate in the church after high school, and, in my experience, it’s much higher. This is not a good statistic, in any context. There’s a need for something that meets them where they are in life; targeted, specific.

Specific Age Stage

Our college ministry is specifically for those between the ages of 18 and 25, whether they’re in school or not. About 80% of the people involved in our ministry are pursuing a college education, however quickly or slowly, but all in this age range are welcome. In our context, we’re about as far away from a college town as there is. I’ve noticed that of those in this life stage—whether attending a junior college, a university, some type of vocational school, or not pursuing further education—because of movement in cultural dynamics and/or parental demands, the majority are in the same adolescent stage.

The biggest commonality with people in this age stage is they all have an identity crisis. For the most part, high school seniors moved past having their identity grounded in their family; instead, they’ve found it in their social community, the sports they play, or who they’re dating. After graduation their friends most likely disperse, their sports days are over, they face new tensions with their dating situation, and to top it off they have no idea what they’re going to do with their lives—which is where most adults find their identity. Whether attending school or not, this is the identity crisis of the final stage of adolescence: they don’t know who they are.

There are few, if any, barriers between them, regardless of their pursuit (or lack) of an education. They’re still, from both a sociological and faith perspective, in the same phase of transitioning from dependent childhood to independent adulthood. In our ministry there are some who’ve begun careers, but these are generally still adolescents in the same faith and personal social stage as others.

From my perspective, it’s healthy if a person is mature enough and wants to be involved more in the overall life of the church before she’s 25 years old. Some of those who have careers feel as though they’re in a different stage of life— probably because they’ve embraced adulthood—and therefore move on. This is the role that college age stage ministry has in the overall structure of the church. It serves as an assimilation ministry from student ministries into the life and body of the overall church—an assimilation ministry that helps people embrace responsibility for their own actions and decisions, to find their identity in Christ, and make the final transition into adulthood.

Is College Ministry for Everyone?

I was originally brought to this church to start a college ministry. My first day in the office I was handed a Post-It note with six names—four with phone numbers—and was told, “Go start a college ministry.” We had no idea how much this was really needed or how much this ministry would impact our church.

We’re by no means in a college town, but our ministry has grown, because there’s nothing specifically for this age stage anywhere in the area. 50% of the students that come on a weekly basis are from other churches. ” I come here because my church doesn’t have anything for me” is heard frequently.

This isn’t typical consumer mentality—it’s a cry for help. Some of these churches even have a service geared for a postmodern crowd, but I think if we broaden the age range of these ministries too much, we might think we can’t miss, but we find out we can’t hit either. With this stage of adolescence, we have to hit; there’s no room for missing.

“We just don’t have many college students in our church” is something I hear often. We didn’t either until we had something for them. I mean, how many middle school students would be involved in your church if you had no middle school ministry?
College students don’t feel like they belong anywhere in the church, so they don’t come. It’s sort of a black hole in life. So we expanded the borders of our student ministries to meet in their stage of life.

Benefits of a College Ministry

I see at least five major benefits in our church:

We’re ministering to a specific age-stage that clearly needs it. Over 75% of the volunteers in our student ministries come from our college ministry. If you want to have volunteers, if you’re loaded with work… start a college ministry! Our college students have made our student ministries so much stronger. However, a word of caution: if you are only in college ministry to get something from the students rather than to serve them, they’ll know—and your college ministry will suffer.

It serves as an assimilation ministry in the overall structure of our church. At 25, a person is more likely to feel a part of the church than an 18-year-old college freshman. Not having this ministry for assimilation is, I think, a major reason for the 58% drop off rate. If they stay involved through their college years, they’re much more likely to stay after.

College students lead the way in missions. They’re the ones leaving—short-and long-term. They set the precedent in our church. Their stage of life, not having anything tying them down, allows for this. Nothing holding them back…except sometimes a lack of maturity, which happens because they have passion but are still in process of be coming an adult. Still, they lead the way in our church.

They bring tremendous passion into our church services. College age people are the most passionate of any age. There is a reason why presidential campaigns concentrate on campuses. They don’t just bring passion during the music— but through their whole lives.

‘On Both Ends’

For us, starting a college ministry wasn’t as premeditated as launching a fifth and sixth grade ministry, but now we see both the benefits and needs of having these ministries. I’ve heard experts say the biggest thing in raising children is consistency. The church is anything but that in the student ministry world. There are two contributing elements to this. First many ministries operate like parachurch organizations— even having different mission statements—rather than as the same team accomplishing the same goals. Secondly, we’re not addressing the entire adolescent stage of life. We’re missing it on both ends. The students deserve the whole offering.

Originally published by YouthWorker Journal, September/October 2005

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