I had a good conversation with a great friend, Mike “Mookie” Cunningham when he was back in town last week. Mookie grew up in Gahanna, OH but now serves as the youth pastor at a church in Chula Vista, CA. His blog is ramblingsofayouthworker.com.
We talked about how most youth ministries we have seen lose students sometime around when they turn 16. I remember what I thought about the big youth ministry in my hometown when I was a sophomore in high school. I went to their meeting on a Wednesday night, and I was thought it was fluff. The youth pastor was talking to high school students like they were 12 year olds. It was a little sad. I and all of my friends at school were far beyond the maturity level the youth pastor thought we were. In other words, the youth ministry was irrelevant to anyone over 14 or 15.
Mookie and I talked about changing the typical youth ministry paradigm. Curent youth ministry is boxed in by the structure of high school that usually lumps 9-12 graders together. The problem is there is a massive developmental difference between 14 year olds and 16 year olds.
Developmentally, 16 year olds are close to adulthood. While a 16 year old’s brain is still not fully developed, a 16 year old’s brain is fully capable of abstract thought just as an adult brain is (Google “Piaget’s Formal Operational Stage”). Thoughtful 16 year olds are beginning to wrestle with the big questions of life, the ones 50 year olds continue to wrestle with. They are developmentally too advanced for traditional youth ministry programs that aim primarily at middle schoolers, with dodge ball and easy answers. So it’s no surprise that youth ministries lament the loss of 16+ students when they’re aiming their ministry at 12 year olds.
Youth ministry as Mookie and I conceived of it would create three different approaches. Grades 5 and 6 would be lumped together, and grades 7-9 would be together. These age groups can be reached with what is now the typical youth ministry model.
Here’s where the big paradigm change would take place. Students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades would be a part of a ministry that looks a lot more like a college ministry looks now. They would meet together for teaching and small groups at completely separate times, or at least in separate rooms, from the younger groups. They would be talked to as adults, and adult topics would be discussed. These students’ primary ministry would be serving by leading the younger students. No more fluffy parody songs. No more indoctrination. Real issues would be discussed in an adult way. No more child’s faith. An adult faith.
I’m not contradicting Jesus’ teaching to have the faith of a child. Jesus is talking about a level of trust in God. Jesus is not talking about an immature faith that doesn’t require thought. If youth ministries taught students in 10-12 grades how to have an adult faith, maybe so many would not put their faith on the shelf in college or abandon their faith for life when their childish faith no longer makes sense.
Maybe it’s time to change the typical youth ministry model.