Hanging On to Adultness in Youth Ministry

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I was once in a conversation with a group of teenagers about friends and friendships.  It became apparent that students felt like friendships were a big deal during the adolescent years.  Numerous research has confirmed that friendships are influential in a number of areas1 and if you are reading this article, you have witnessed the power of peer pressure.  In adolescence, friendships help students to try out new identities, explore leadership and follow-ship, and provide a basis of comparison for attitudes and behavior.

Generally, adolescents are most influenced by close-to-their age peers in the “spontaneous” or decision category.  Ranging from smoking and taking drugs to mass rededication decisions at youth camp.  Adults tend to influence areas with more permanence like value of education, importance of church and faith, and even political opinions.

Most media portrayal of adults paints us to be one of three things:

1. Stupid (Homer Simpson).
2. Naive (most movies about delinquent teens whose parents have no clue).
3. Trying to be best friends with teenagers as a way of validation or their “hipness” to students or vicariously re-living their own teen years.

Both scholarly study and common sense remind us that students need adults–particularly parents–to be spiritual guides and life coaches.  Discipleship is most effectively practiced when parents are the primary discipleship influences and adults at church (and other settings) provide reinforcing encouragement to adolescents. Each year, Best Buy and Search Institute publish a “Teen Voices” bulletin. When Search asked teenagers themselves what they need from adults, here was their top ten list:2

  1. Look at us.
  2. Spend time talking with us.
  3. Listen.
  4. Be dependable.
  5. Show appreciation for what we do.
  6. Relax.
  7. Show that you’re interested.
  8. Laugh with us (and at yourself).
  9. Ask us to help you.
  10. Challenge us.

Nowhere on the list was “dress like us, listen to our music and act like you enjoy it, talk like us, stalk us on social media.” They don’t need us to be their peers. As you maintain your identity as an adult, you get to exert positive influence.  Young people have enough peers and they need to hear and observe adult problem solving techniques.

Here are a few more tips from my class notes on maintaining your adult-ness in Youth Ministry (and therefore your influence):

  1. Remember what it was like to be a teenager.  Problems that seem trivial (boyfriends,   an “F” on a test, pimples, etc.) are major league when you are an adolescent.
  2. Don’t bargain with them.  It is hard not to adapt an attitude of “I’ll be there for you if you are faithful in Sunday School . . . ” but kids are flaky.  It is not always easy, but our availability must be unconditional.
  3. Expect the best in them and out of them.  If you are observant, you will notice that these kids memorize pages of dialogue for the school play, complicated offenses for the football team, and intricate formulas in algebra.  We should not expect less than their best in Bible studies, projects, youth-led worship, etc.
  4. Forgive them.  It hurts to love kids, especially when they are so “immediate-oriented.” Many times, young people do “what seemed like a good idea at the time,” without thinking about long-range consequences.
  5. Be an active listener. When you listen, really hear. When you speak, choose words carefully.  Young people need to feel like their words are landing in caring ears.

It goes without saying that you have to strive to be a growing Christian yourself.  If you are not increasing in your knowledge of and devotion to the Lord, it is difficult to have energy or the inspiration to help young people with their Christian journey. Finally, be patient.  Relationships take time.  We live in a world where everything is instant.  Trust develops over months and years of consistent, unconditional love

P.S. My favorite/saddest tweet that I read during the 2014 Winter Olympics: “Now we get to see which lost childhood finally paid off.”  Let’s be the kind of adults that allow students to grow up as we cheer them on–from an appropriate distance.


1Representative of many other studies, Denise B. Kandel, “Homophily, Selection, and Socialization in Adolescent Friendships,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 84, No. 2, Sep., 1978.

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