When I began my career as a professional youth worker, I was 22 years old and newly married. Both I, and my first church, viewed my age as an asset that would allow me to better relate to the youth I was ministering to.
Such a belief is neither new or unusual in youth ministry. In fact, youthfulness is actually a criteria that many churches look for when they hire youth workers.
Yet, in retrospect, I wonder if the youthfulness of youth workers is actually more harmful than helpful to churches, youth ministries, and the families we seek to serve.
Don’t get me wrong: God can and does use young youth workers in powerful ways.
Despite my youthful inexperience, God gave me the privilege of baring some tremendous fruit during my first year of ministry. Yet, looking back on that year, I must confess that God worked – not because of me, but largely in spite of me. A fact which no longer surprises me.
When I began serving my first church, I was, myself, still an adolescent, something that brain researchers are only beginning to understand. In her book, “The Primal Teen,” Barbara Strauch reports that just as our culture has extended adolescence so that it now ends around the age of 25, a person’s brain is actually still developing well into their 20s. Some of the last areas of the brain to develop are those that control our ability to reason and to appropriately act on our emotions.
Given this, it’s no surprise that as a 22 year old youth worker, I made some VERY poor decisions; Had a difficult time establishing boundaries; Related to the youth in my ministry as more of their peer than as an empathetic, caring, and wiser adult mentor or coach; Picked fights in order to get my way, even if that way wasn’t the best way for the church as a whole; Made decisions based on short-term gains rather than long-term benefits; And had an extremely difficult time trying to articulate the very faith that I was trying to pass on to the teens in my ministry. All things that are incredibly natural for someone who’s 22 with a still developing brain.
Yet, just because they’re natural doesn’t make them good; At least not in the context of a youth ministry.
Don’t get me wrong, I think 22 year old’s can be incredibly gifted, perhaps even with gifts that are incredibly valuable in youth ministry. I also think that 22 year old’s should be given the opportunity to develop and use those gifts in youth ministries. I’m just no longer convinced that we should allow a 22 year old to be the lead youth worker when they are still adolescents themselves. Instead, I think older youth workers should be mentoring those 22 year old youth workers – Investing in them; Discipling them; Caring for them; Challenging them; And surrounding them with a rather large safety net that will catch them when they fall (Because at 22, they will still fall!) and allow them to bounce right back up, stronger than they were before.
Recent research from the National Study of Youth and Religion has suggested that when it comes to passing on a true and genuine Christian faith, our churches are largely failing our teens.
Maybe part of the reason we’re failing them is because we’re entrusting their care to those who are still adolescents themselves, which isn’t to say that we’d solve that problem simply by hiring older youth workers.
But it might be a start.
Even though I’m no longer 22, I’m still imperfect and I do still regularly make mistakes in leading my ministry. But I’m also far wiser than I was at 22 and far more capable of passing down a legacy of lasting faith to teens than I was then.
That’s why even though I’m no longer young and cool; Even though I no longer listen to the same music or watch the same shows as those in my ministry do (& therefore must be more intentional about learning about youth culture); I can honestly say that if I were to return to my first church now as a youth worker, I’d be much more effective in my role than I was then, as a 22 year old kid myself.