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Should Young Adults Serve as Youth Ministry Volunteers?

in a recent edition of Slant33.com, i responded to this question:

If young adult brains aren’t yet fully formed (particularly in the areas responsible for wisdom and decision making), what implications does that have for working with young adult volunteers?

Click through to see michelle lang and paul martin’s responses, but here’s mine:

Here’s a rub I regularly experience when talking to rooms full of youth workers. I’ll mention the new realities of extended adolescence, and the findings referred to in the question above. Then I’ll ask: how many of you are under 30? Usually, somewhere between 30% and 50% raise their hands. My regular gag is to say, “Well, it’s nice to have so many teenagers in the room today!”

I’ve never been (or at least haven’t been for a long time) one of those youth workers who thinks that only young adults make good youth leaders. I like diversity. But, there’s no denying that some of my most wonderful youth ministry volunteers over the years have been in the 18 – 25 year-old range.

And while I’d like to think my particular young adult leaders were always a serious cut above average, the reality I’d rather not admit is: they are – on average – physiologically limited in wisdom, decision-making, prioritization, impulse control, and a bunch of other skills I’d sure like my volunteer leaders to possess.

Part of my struggle with this, though, is that I’m still very unconvinced that the whole teenage brain thing is a nature thing (god’s design, you might say), and is more likely to be a nurture thing (the result of our collective restrictions on young adults, keeping them from moving into adulthood or using their brains as adults). And, as I’m buying into the notion that young adults (and even teenagers — particularly older teenagers) are fully capable — whether behavioral indicators show this or not — of “being adult”, I’m forced to wrestle with a few things:

Extended adolescence is not the fault of young adults. Sure, there are slackers. I’m guessing there always have been. But I think it’s wiser for us to examine ourselves, our culture, our churches, our homes, and stop pointing the finger of judgement at 20-somethings. Collectively, we’ve created the culture that isolates teenagers and young adults from adults and adulthood; we’ve created extended adolescence. They’re merely living into our expectations (“You’re not yet an adult”).

It seems possible for some (a few) post-high school teenagers and young 20-somethings to step into adulthood, in some cases very quickly, to reverse the extended adolescent trend, or at least side-step it. I’m not talking about those outliers who naturally move into adulthood “early” (by today’s norms), and would have in any culture, in any era; I’m talking about an average 18 or 21 year old newly leaning into the capabilities they already possess. What is required? In short: meaningful responsibility and expectation (can you see where this is going, as it pertains to young adults in youth ministry?).

But don’t even start comparing your experience as a young adult in youth ministry, in 1982, to that of young adults today. Not the same thing, and you’re probably being revisionist in your memory anyhow.

A large church brought me in a couple years ago to help them think about young adult ministry. They knew things were not going well. But it was way bleaker than I expected, or, I think, than they realized. In a church of a few thousand, there were maybe 25 or so actively engaged 20-somethings. About a dozen of them attended a super-lame class on Sunday mornings that felt like death by crockpot. And another dozen or so found their primary connection to the church as volunteers in the middle school ministry. Of course, here’s the tension:

• Many of the church leadership (but, to his credit, not the senior pastor) thought the best response was to hire a ‘young adults pastor’ and create (my words) a new pocket of isolation, keeping ‘emerging adults’ (the kinder term now being used to describe the third segment of the adolescent experience — formerly called ‘older adolescents’) disconnected from the adult world. Of course, this is all spun under the banner of “let’s create a space that’s uniquely theirs” (which often actually means, “let’s create a space for them so my space can stay uniquely mine”).

• The young adults serving on the middle school team were the sharpest of the 2 dozen young adults in the church, and — on average — ahead of the curve on the plodding move to adulthood.

• But, a church (that church) can’t say, “Our intentional ministry for young adults is to have them work with the middle school ministry.”

Or can they?

Maybe the answer to the question at the top of this page isn’t to “boundary” or limit young adults in youth ministry. Maybe we need to take the counter-intuitive step of giving them more responsibility. Or, just, giving them the responsibility we would give any adult, without a bunch of coddling and hand-holding.

Some might read this and respond, “Well, of course, we already do that.” Sure. Maybe you do (maybe you don’t). Maybe you never read about teenage brain development and extended adolescence, and maybe you never bought into the idea (or, I’m thinking: myth) that “this is just the way things are.” Or maybe you were never intentional at all, and were merely perpetuating stereotypes about who makes the “best” youth ministry volunteers.

But I’m thinking that meaningful responsibility, spending time with adults (on an age-diverse ministry team), all covered in a watchful layer of intentionality and a leaning toward developing volunteers of all sorts – well, that might just be the best young adult ministry possible.

What do you think?