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Youth MinistryIts Renewal in the Local Church
By Lawrence O. Richards
ZondervanCopyright © 1991 Zondervan
All right reserved.
"I can't remember any basic decision, actually," says an eighteen-year-old college freshman, thinking back over her life as a high schooler. "I just lived a day at a time and did what seemed right and most fun at the time. A lot of times, though, what I did or didn't do depended on whether my dad would approve." Adolescence is probably like this for most young people. But much more can be said about adolescence. Consequently, many different theories have emerged about this vitally significant time of life.
Technically, adolescence is most often described as a period of time: a time of transition that extends from about age twelve to age twenty-five in men, and to twenty-one or so in women. It is also defined in other ways. It is the period that stretches from the beginning of puberty, through a long process of education, until the person is able to take his or her place as a responsible individual in the adult world.
Adolescence is often seen as occurring in stages. In early adolescence young people are keenly aware of their physical selves. During this time they begin to develop the capacity to think abstractly, and they often experience emotional ups and downs.
Middle adolescence, usually seen as the period from age fifteen to eighteen, is associated with the development of a sense of personal identity and a growing struggle with sexuality. The character of friendships shift and deepen, and relationships become more important to the individual.
Late adolescence includes the period in which a person begins a marriage and a job or continues his or her education in a college or vocational school. During these years individuals are facing and making the choices that will shape their entire future.
These basic and simple facts about adolescence are common knowledge. We all know them and accept this general picture of adolescent development. But as we approach the exigencies of youth ministry, it is important to realize that we are likely to come to these basic facts with quite different perspectives. In fact, our different views of youth and our feelings about adolescence as a time of life are sure to color our approach to young people. So we need to look at a few common notions about adolescence, examine some evidence from research, and see whether we can develop a consensus that will help to guide us.
NOTIONS ABOUT ADOLESCENCE
We are familiar with most of the notions about adolescence. One notion that has been with us for a hundred years or so is that adolescence is a stormy period. Young people are viewed as unpredictable, moved by strong emotions they can't understand or control. The young person is not stable; dramatic personality shifts can be expected.
A parallel view sees adolescence as a unique period because it is a time of restructuring the personality. The child suddenly disappears, and before the adult can emerge, a whole new identity must be formed. During this period the young person must learn the roles he or she will play in adulthood. Sexual identity, moral orientation, identity with the values of the larger society are all seen as taking place in this period.
Others have argued that adolescence is unique because it is marked by the formation of a youth culture separate from and often antagonistic toward the general culture. This youth culture is thought to be in rebellion against adult norms and values.
Each of these common orientations to adolescence sees this time of life as unique, set apart from other periods of human development. Each agrees it is, in Anna Freud's phrase, an "interruption of peaceful growth" and a time of "emotional upsets and structural upheavals."
The general acceptance of such views of adolescence affects the way many approach the thought of working with youth. Moms and dads often anticipate the teen-age years with anxiety and may draw back in their relationships with their children just when friendship and wise guidance is most needed. Couples in a local church may hesitate to work with teens, fearful that they will be unable to communicate with persons who are so "different." Churches may misinterpret the distinctive aspects of youth culture, seeing in hair styles, music, and fashion the "rebellion" they have been programmed to expect. All too often the uncertainty and fears of adult members of a congregation are experienced by youth as a judgmental or condemning attitude, tragically driving a wedge between youth and the adult Christians whom they need to emulate.
A BALANCED VIEW
A balanced view of adolescence must recognize it as a critical time in human development. Normal adolescence is marked by rapid growth. Puberty brings hormonal changes that are greater than at any other age period. Puberty also brings adult sexual capacity with a surge of emotions that are strange to young people. Research has shown that this is also a time of changing mental capabilities: adolescents are able to think differently and more deeply than when they were younger. And there are also social changes: the character of friendships with peers changes as well as increases in importance.
It is not surprising that such changes are associated with more depressive feelings and uncertainty about the future than are other periods. But to acknowledge youth as a special time of life is not the same as characterizing it as unique, a time qualitatively different from that of childhood or adulthood.
In fact, the evidence suggests that most of us, with the normal measure of trauma, pass through adolescence without becoming delinquents. We pass our school examinations, suffer through our first love, find employment, and gradually develop independence from our family. Many of us do all this quite successfully, without rebellion or rejection of our parents' values.
Studies show that most young people even adopt the basic values and outlook of their parents. Youth who have a history of delinquency are most likely to come from homes (whether broken or intact) in which parents show hostility to each other. Youth from homes marked by a degree of parental harmony and concord tend to move through adolescence without great rebellion or unusual stress.
It is fascinating that even in the sixties and early seventies, when the "generation gap" was most widely accepted, scientific research indicated that
adolescents are surprisingly close to their parents; they tend not to rebel against authority; they often share with parents goals and aspirations for their future role in society.... The findings of this study fail to support the notion of an extensive gap between parents and their adolescent children.
A balanced view of youth recognizes and is sensitive to the special stress experienced by young persons. But the stereotype of adolescence as a unique period, a period when young people are somehow "different" from other human beings, must be rejected. If we approach ministry with young people with our vision distorted by stereotypes, we will respond to the false images we have of young persons and not to the young persons themselves. What youth need, as do all human beings, is to be met and accepted and loved as individuals of worth, and not treated as objects-mere members of a class of persons who are felt to be somehow different from the rest of humanity.
Excerpted from Youth Ministry by Lawrence O. Richards Copyright © 1991 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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