Reclaiming the Beauty of Adolescence

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Have you ever come back from a fall retreat, summer camp, or even from an evening outing with teenagers and the next day someone says to you as the youth pastor, “Wow, you must be exhausted! I don’t know how you do it!” I have. All the time. And until about 5 years ago, I’m not sure I ever thought that much about it. Yeah, sometimes I was tired, but nothing that a good cup of coffee (or 12) couldn’t solve.

Imbedded in those statements is this sense that teenagers are a lot of work. And yes, they are often hard work; hard, yet beautiful, fun, and joyous work. Sadly, I think in the eyes of many people teenagers are hard work that is to be survived and endured.

Part of the reason for this perception is because of the way adolescence has been thought of since the inception of its theory. Adolescence itself is quite a new idea. While the word “adolescent” dates back to the 15th century from the Latin word adolescere, meaning ‘to grow up or grow to maturity,’ the concept of adolescence as a developmental stage did not become popular until 1904. 

G. Stanley Hall popularized the theory of adolescence in his book Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. Hall says that after the Civil War, society had undergone a transformation which caused children to no longer be a part of the labor force. Combined with new labor laws and mandatory education, he argued, this created a transitional period between childhood to adulthood. 

At the center of Hall’s theory was that adolescence “is inherently a time of storm and stress.” One does not have to look far past the title of his book (which connects adolescence to sex and crime) to see that Hall had a less than favorable view of this developmental period. He characterized adolescence as a time period marked by higher levels of seeking attention, engaging in risky behavior, and a strong dependence on friendships. While all of these may be true, Hall set adolescence on a trajectory for decades to be viewed pejoratively as a period that parents and other adults had to endure. The good old days of childhood innocence were gone and one must just survive the adolescent years. 

This perception does two things. First, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are certain that a child’s adolescent years are ones to be survived, then you will see every adolescent you come across as someone who is likely to frustrate and exasperate you. You will only see the potential in an adolescent, rather than the unique and beautiful person they already are. (For the record, I think “potential” is one of the dirtiest words you can use to describe an adolescent. When you say, “You’ve got so much potential,” what you’re also saying and what they may hear is, “But you’re worthless right now in comparison to what you could be.”) This method of thought blinds you to the beauty that is already there. If you’re looking for trouble, it’s hard to see anything else. 

Is adolescence a time period that will involve challenge, difficulty, poor decision making, and make sticking plastic forks in someone’s lawn seem like the funniest thing ever? Of course. But it is also a time of beauty, discovery, ideas, and opportunity. 

Youth ministry is much like the life and ministry of Jesus. Did Jesus come, take on flesh, dwell among us so that he could die on the cross to pay for our sins? Yes. But is that all he did? No. Jesus life gives every person he encountered a foretaste of what his kingdom would be like in it’s fulfillment. But that taste was not just to give them hope for the future, it was meant to reshape the way they lived from that day forward. Youth ministry is not just about pointing adolescents to the cross and helping them plan for eternity. Youth ministry is an opportunity to help them experience Jesus’ kingdom today, and to be advocates for His ‘in-breaking’ kingdom.

What was the purpose of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? Lazarus was going to die again later on. Jesus does not raise him from the dead just to prove he has the power to do so. Andy Root in his book Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry says that the point of Jesus raising Lazarus is that “Jesus is opening up the new reality that God is bringing forth Jesus’ action. The raising of Lazarus is a sign, a witness, to the new reality that is coming into the world through Jesus himself…Jesus’ actions are signs that point to the coming reign of God, but they are also the very in-breaking of that reign itself.” Jesus’ reign, and the fullness of life God intended us to have, could be experienced today!

Just as our lives and our world are not merely a transitory space between the fall and the kingdom to come, adolescence is not just a developmental transition period to be endured. Just as Jesus ushered in a new possibility for living, youth ministry ushers into the lives of adolescents a new possibility for being. 

Jesus came and invited twelve Jewish knuckleheads to be co-participants and co-creators of His Kingdom. He chose twelve young people, not just because of their potential, but because of their present value and willingness. He invited them – with all of their doubting, failure, arguing, and humanity – to be his partners in bearing witness to the glory of God and in facilitating the in-breaking of his Kingdom. 

Youth ministry sees adolescence as time of awakening. Of discovery. Of asking questions and seeking answers. Of participation. Of new ideas and fearlessness. Of inviting young people into a life of bringing life to others in the name of Jesus. The beauty of that far outweighs any of the failure, mistakes, doubting, and arguing over who is the best – the storm and the stress that are such a necessary part of this beautiful process. 

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  

Also to learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

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