Wes Ellis presented a seminar on this topic at PYM16. Wes is a Member In Discernment in the United Church of Christ and student at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying Practical Theology. He’s been in youth ministry for over 10 years and he’s passionate about theological reflection. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Amanda and their son, Henry.
We’ve all met that kid… You know, the one who doesn’t need much convincing. The one who shows up to youth group for the first time and, by the second visit, has already invited all her friends to church. The kid who prays in the morning, brings her bible with her to school, and volunteers for every mission the youth ministry offers. That kid is our “success” story, the kid who has developed along the path to Christian maturity—the path that has dominated our vision for ministry since we invented “adolescence” in the early 20th century. These success stories keep us going and keep us committed to the way we’ve been doing youth ministry for decades.
But what about the kid who doesn’t develop?
We’ve all met that kid too. We may have even lost some sleep over that kid. He comes to church for some reason… we can’t quite tell why. He keeps coming, at least for a while, but won’t “mature” along the path. He won’t volunteer to pray out loud. He hasn’t made any progress in understanding scripture. He may not even be a Christian. But, with dumb persistence, we keep on inviting him in, inviting him to be a part of what God is doing (as far as we can tell), inviting him to mature Christian adulthood. That, after all, is what youth ministry is all about right? And when he eventually the stalemate is reached and he stops coming to youth group, we just have to consider it collateral damage. You can’t win ‘em all…
But what if youth ministry doesn’t have to be about winning at all? What if, instead of being about “developing adolescents into mature Christian adults,” youth ministry can be about sharing “in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God” (Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker)? What if youth ministry is about God and, as such, is actually about youth, not just the mature Christian adulthood into which we’d like to develop them? What if youth ministry can actually be about ministry and not development?
If this sounds like a challenging proposal, it’s probably because it chafes against the way we think about youth. Since its origins, youth ministry has operated according to a developmental model, deeply invested in psychological categories (namely, “adolescence”) for interpreting young people’s experience. Youth has been understood as a “stage of development” in the life cycle moving toward maturity. The value of their experience is transitional, transitory, and derivative. But what if, instead of seeing youth only for its potentiality as a “stage of development,” we took it seriously as a “social practice” and a way of being human now, in actuality? What if we truly understood young people to be human beings and not just human becomings?
Maybe then we would be able not only to invite young people into our best understanding of mature Christian adulthood, but we’d also be able to listen to them and discover what God is doing in their lives right now—not just in the lives of our “success stories” but even in the lives of the kid who isn’t “developing”—so that we can participate in God’s ministry to youth here and now.
For more, check out the article, “Human Beings and Human Becomings: Departing from the Developmental Model of Youth Ministry” in Journal of Youth and Theology 14, no.2 (2015): 119-137.