Teenagers and beyond

When I was a seminary student, I was enrolled in what was called the “straight through” D.Min. This program had all of the requirements of the M.Div. degree plus an additional year of training in a ministry specialty. It also required two internships. My first internship was as a youth minister at Union Church in Hinsdale, Illinois. At the time, I thought that youth ministry was a specialty that I might pursue. My career as a parish pastor has been marked by strong youth programs and engaged youth.

One of the reasons I have been interested in youth ministry is that my teen years were very formative. In that decade I went from elementary school to college. I moved away from my family of origin and became engaged to be married. I obtained my driver’s license and my pilot’s license. I made my career choice and started down the road to becoming an ordained minister. It was the discovery of my calling as a minister that reminded me how important adolescence can be in setting the tone and in making lifelong commitments.

My time in seminary, however, was part of a shift in the vocation of ministry. Seminaries began to see an increase in second career students. They admitted more and more students who were older than the averages of my time. I began to have more and more colleagues who had found employment in other fields before entering the ministry. Along with this trend was a general aging of those of us in the ministry. There were fewer first career pastors graduating from seminary. Ministers in their twenties and thirties became less common. As I approached the middle of my career, the church began to recognize this phenomenon and addressed it by developing special programs and support systems for ministers in their twenties and thirties.

Another trend was developing in our communities. Adolescence was stretching out. The average age of first marriage shot up from the late teens into the late twenties. More and more youth began to remain in their parents’ house into their twenties.

The days of large youth groups in mainline churches, which began to take hold in the 1950s and 1960s were fading. Church youth groups were on the decline in virtually all mainline churches. While they continued to grow in evangelical/fundamentalist congregations into the 1990s, it turned out that these congregations were simply experiencing a lag in their sociology and now are seeing very similar trends.

Youth ministry as a vocational specialty exists only in large congregations and the number of large congregations and the number of professional youth ministers declines every year.

The reality is that the social perception of the transition from childhood to adulthood has shifted over the course of my lifetime. It is part of a shift that began before I was born and will continue after my time on this earth has ended. The term teenager is a product of the 20th century. It wasn’t applied to my parents’ generation. Children simply reached the end of their educations, married and became adults. The First and Second World Wars of the first half of the 20th century required large numbers of very young soldiers and forced young men to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. By the time he was 25 - the age at which I completed my seminary education - he had completed his military service. He had flown thousands of hours in airplanes instructing young pilots, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 20. He had seen members of his age cohort die in battle and in accidents.

The rise of the middle class and the increasing affluence of the post war time - the years in which I was born and had my childhood - saw an increased use of the term teenager. There was a popular image of teens as rebellious, risk-takers, who built and drove hot rods, experimented with tobacco and alcohol, and explored relationships outside of their families of origin.

By the time I entered my teen years, teens had been recognized as influencers of commerce. Teens set trends in music, fashion and language. They became known as an important market segment and advertising was directed at the age group.

As we entered the new century, the change in the perception and the reality of teens continued to shift. Part of the shift, that will be reflected in the experience of our grandchildren as they enter their teenage years in the next decade is that the process of making the transition from childhood to adulthood has slowed and is taking longer than has been the case at any time in history. Comparing today’s teens to those of the 20th century, growing up has slowed. Psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has studied and documented this phenomena. Twenge has noted that a 17- or 18-year-old in the United States is less likely to have tried alcohol, have had sex, or acquired their driver’s license than teens 20 years ago. A general reduction in risky behavior has been documented by researchers.

Technology and the internet have played a major role. More interaction with peers happens online and in the home, where sex, experimentation and trouble are less likely. More importantly, the times in which we live have a level of affluence that has not been known by previous generations. World Wars and the Great Depression forced teens to grow up quickly in the beginning of the 20th century. The luxury of a time of relative ease has resulted in a greater emphasis on safety among the current generation of teens. The ability to remain in or return to the parental home into their twenties has resulted in a caution that was not possible for previous generations.

Current research has shown that adolescence doesn’t finish at the end of the teenage years. By many important measures, including brain science, adolescence continues into the mid twenties. Puberty may have finished by the age of 20 but the development and maturation of the brain is far from complete. The early twenties are also a critical developmental social stage as well. People continue to learn about intimacy, friendship, family, self-expression and political and social awareness.

The practice of youth ministry has shifted. Congregations now are looking for ministers who can help individuals and families in the transition into young adulthood. The ages may have changed but the need for attentiveness to the spiritual development in these years is as important as ever.

Made in RapidWeaver