Reaching Adolescents

When does one become an adult? Is adulthood defined by an age or an accomplishment? Should there be a ritual that commemorates adulthood? Is adulthood cross-cultural? Is adolescence a cultural phenomenon or a universal issue?[1]

I am not a sociologist, but sociology and social psychology fascinate me. I am not a cultural anthropologist, but I have studied cultures for my entire life. As a pastor of a church across the street from a high school, around the corner from another, and just a few blocks from a significant college; I must be a student of adolescence. I believe that every pastor needs to exegete his cultural context and effectively bring Christ into the culture.[2]

The students around our church facility are no longer Millennials[3], at best they are “Cuspers[4],” caught somewhere between the values of the typical Millennial and the values of the next generation. Our job as a church is to figure out how we can bring Christ into this culture.[5] We must not fall into the traditional trap of thinking the kids on our church patio are just like us because they dress like us and speak the same language. Generations distinctions are merely an attempt to define the cultural shifts that happen around us. The church is to bring Christ and His Kingdom to bear upon her cultural context – even if the cultural context is distinct of the church community.

As we look at our cultural context, we must consider the issue of an expanding adolescence. When my dad was a kid, he was expected to have a job at 13. When I was a kid it was 16. When Millennials were kids it was 18. Today’s teenagers are not expected to get a job until they are finished with college – in fact, we have told them that they can’t get a “real” job unless they go to college!

We have a dilemma in our culture that seems to be driving this issue: we don’t have a clear definition of adulthood. I asked a group of younger Millennials if they considered themselves adults; their response surprised me. It was a resounding “NO!” Interestingly, a couple of them own their own house, some have careers, and most pay all their own bills! They could not say when someone becomes an adult, they just knew that they had not arrived.

I think that we all know that though worldview is typically defined by the age of 12, we work out our faith during our adolescence. It is during our adolescence that we learn the value of spiritual disciplines, what it means to practice faith, and the importance of community to our spirituality. For several decades now, the church has attempted to provide age-specific ministries to adolescents in order to help these young people figure out what it is to have an “adult-like” faith. Ironically, we have attempted to do this while isolating adolescents from adult mentors – the youth pastor/workers notwithstanding.

Research now shows that the best way to train up our adolescents in faith is not through a multi-generational approach; but it is best accomplished through an intergenerational church. We cannot continue to isolate our youth from the church community and the adults that are also working out their own faith – in fact, letting youth and adults work out their faith together is the best way to shape all involved.

In 2003 I attended a seminar about the importance of engaging Millennials in the church’s ministry and leadership. At that time, the presenter[6] made the case that Boomers need Gen X to serve as interpreters and peacemakers in order to hand off ministry and leadership to the emerging Millennial leaders. Now, fifteen years later, the same is true. We need Millennials to serve as peacemakers and interpreters as we seek to hand off leadership to this emerging generation. The question is this, “Will Millennials within the church be willing to care enough about the institution of the church to invest in those of a different generation?”[7]

We currently have no fewer than 3 drug dealers who have set up their business on the streets in front of our church. One dealer seems to think that it is okay to deal from our front steps! Our desire has always been, and continues to be, to provide a safe-haven for our neighbors – and most of our closest neighbors are adolescents. Ironically, we have become a safe-haven for those seeking to do harm to our youth!

We need to engage the youth within 100 yards of our front door. Therefore, we need to identify some key components in order to see this ministry develop. We need a “Champion” for Palmer High School. We need “Harvesters” to step into the harvest-field of our patio and befriend this emerging culture. We need a “Person of Peace” at Palmer High School. We need the drug dealers to become followers of Jesus. Please pray with your elders as we seek to go after this people group in 2018. Please set a reminder on your phone for 10:02 (Luke 10:02) to serve as a reminder to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the field known as Palmer High School.

[1] Thirteen-year-olds are teenagers. Sixteen-year-olds can drive and get a job. Eighteen-year-olds are legally adults and can die for our country. Twenty-one-year-olds can drink alcohol, smoke pot, and enroll in a GED program. Twenty-five-year-olds can rent a car without paying an age penalty. Which rite of passage is the definition of adulthood?

[2] This is not to say that Christ is not in the culture, but to say that the church is to bring Christ to bear upon the culture.

[3] A simple tool to distinguish the American generations and why they are different from each other: A Millennial has a personal history concerning 9/11 but doesn’t have a personal history with the Challenger explosion. Gen X has a personal history with the Challenger explosion but they don’t have a personal history with JFK’s assassination. Boomers remember where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination but don’t remember the news of Pearl Harbor.

[4] Cuspers are those who exist between two generations. For instance, they may not remember that exact moment of the tragedy that shaped a generation, but they were subjected to so much information about it, that they identify with the previous generation. Or, they may be old enough to remember, but due to their personal circumstances, it wasn’t significant to their world.

[5] In order to be an effective missionary, the worker must learn to differentiate between their home culture and their ministry context. Churches that enter ministry with this missionary value are more effective in ministry to their context as well.

[6] George Barna

[7] Millennials have historically been uninterested in investing in the institutional church. Millennials are deeply concerned about issues of inequality, injustice, and prejudice but are less interested in what it perceived by them as superficial solutions. While valuing community with one another, they will rarely pursue community outside of their immediate circles.

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