In one of my youth ministry classes yesterday we discussed our perspective on adolescents. The question of whether teens are “children” or “adults” was one of the hallmarks of this conversation. Taking our cue from Kenda Dean, who argues in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry that “youth ministry has vacillated between two teleological objectives: protection and empowerment,” we spent some time discussing whether we sided with the former (emphasizing relative teenage childhood) or the latter (focusing on their increasingly realized adulthood).
Opinions were mixed, but I am glad for the conversation. Regardless of what side you come down on or if–like Dean–you opt for a third way, youth ministers need to be very clear about how they understand teenagers. While it is a commonplace in the literature that adolescents are full of liminality or “in-between-ness,” recognizing this intellectually does not always mean we live this way in actuality.
Most of us, I think, tend to default to one or the other. Though not always as consistently as I’d like, I’m coming to see high school students as young adults and their junior-high counterparts as children. The distinction between the two groups is admittedly artificial and societally imposed, but it is how my brain organizes things.
With regard to high school students, this “adult” approach needs to show in both the way I communicate and the trust I show in teenagers. As adolescents reach for adulthood, I feel that talking to them as children would only serve to infuriate them or depress their development. Not trusting them will, I feel, slow their development is ways both psycho-social and spiritual.
There are risks to thinking of teens as adults. They will let us down and we may unintentionally speak over their heads from time to time. Furthermore, we cannot let go of the fact that they are young and active and desire to have fun as much as they do to grow up. But I’d rather challenge students towards maturity than let them remain children. Much of modern youth ministry has historically tended to mitigate against this drive towards adulthood with its emphasis on games, gimmicks, lights, smokes, and “zing.”
As I noted above, I’m still developing and have been less than consistent in my “adult approach.” From time to time I have gotten caught up in the “military-industrial complex” that is modern youth ministry. It is hard not to. But that doesn’t mean youth ministers have to continue on this path. Teenagers by law become adults at age 18. Society and culture do little, it seems, to prepare for their existence in this new reality. We as the Church must do better.