Whose Journey Is It? Avoiding Life-Stage Confusion

Mark Matlock
October 9th, 2009


Maintaining your own spiritual journey can be difficult. Surrounded by church culture, other Christians, and the task of constantly shepherding the spiritual journeys of young lives, we can become numb to our own spiritual progress.

Life-stage confusion can develop, whether to a young or a mature youth minister, and begin to decay our spiritual journeys and the journeys of those whom we serve. This confusion occurs when we mistake where our students are on their spiritual journeys for where we are on ours. To help prevent this, youth workers must be careful not to project their own spiritual level of development onto the students they serve or misevaluate their group's level of spiritual maturity.

Challenges of the Younger Youth Pastor

While both younger and older youth pastors run this risk, younger youth pastors have a unique challenge. Since they're often not that far from the ages of the students they serve, they can be incorrectly convinced that they remember what it's like to be a teenager. The high idealism of youth accompanied with new ideas gained from college or seminary can blind younger youth workers to the unique challenges facing their specific group. With this life-stage confusion, adults can become frustrated or disappointed by the unwillingness of others to participate in their ideal model.

While at Biola University focusing on intercultural studies, I spent six weeks in India and was responsible for training and debriefing those going abroad on short-term trips. The youth group at my home church was taking a trip to Haiti, and I imagined how helpful it would be if they had some training before they went. I'd been on this same trip in high school and remembered how clueless we were about our surroundings and how inappropriately we had interacted with the locals. I was convinced that our church needed pre-trip training. With the approval of my youth pastor, I put together a weekend training experience to cover everything I thought would make the experience more impacting. It turns out, I was the only one excited. It became apparent that they didn't have a clue why this was important to them and that I hadn't thought about my audience or where they were in their life journeys.

I also remember attending a few youth group meetings when I was young during which college Bible students would come and totally bore us to tears by regurgitating highlights from their favorite classes. They'd been inspired by these teachings for sure, but had not yet mastered how to share them effectively or how to identify what material suits a given group of students.

Challenges of the Older Youth Pastor

While enthusiasm and idealism can create life-stage confusion for younger youth workers, boredom and pessimism can cause it in those who've been around for a while.

Youth ministers are getting older. This is a good thing. Rather than use youth ministry as the holding tank until a “real” ministry position opens up, many are choosing to make ministering to young people their careers. We need the wisdom and maturity of those who've been around for awhile to inform those younger to progress this important area of ministry.

But after hundreds of talks, conferences, and camps, we can get a little tired of the same old thing. And this is where danger can set in. While our age and experience leads us into deeper waters of the faith, stage confusion causes us to bring this into our ministries to students who aren't ready for such challenges. Instead of going on mission trips for ourselves, we make a youth group trip out of it. Instead of doing our own deep Bible study and intense reflection, we double up and use our youth group time to explore our own interests.

I've seen this often in the area of worship. Thinking that kids should be able to follow by example, worship leaders (excuse me “lead worshippers”) enjoy a type of spiritual self-gratification—singing and praising—leaving the believers in the crowd to act as “worship voyeurs.” I actually had a worship leader turn down a ministry opportunity with a group of junior high and high school students because he only leads “level 3” worship and he thought that group couldn't handle it. When MercyMe was traveling with our ministry in their early days, some youth ministers didn't take them seriously as worship leaders because they worked with younger believers. Those ministers failed to realize that MercyMe was making corporate worship accessible to younger teens who needed increased leadership and direction to join in the awe and wonder of singing praises to God.

I've experienced mission trips where youth groups did more damage than good because they weren't at an appropriate stage to engage in such an opportunity. Regardless of what their youth leaders said, they weren't prepared for the challenge.

With so many youth group graduates never returning to church (58% of frequent youth group attenders won't attend church by age 30, according to Barna research), we have to ask ourselves: Are we adequately preparing students for a lifetime of devotion and service to God? Or are we burning kids out in service before they receive the foundation that will last?Proverbs 19:2 reads, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way.” If we try to accelerate the spiritual growth of teens during their years in our youth ministry, have we succeeded if they miss the way for the remainder of their lives?

Identifying the Warning Signs

Avoiding this life-stage confusion can be difficult, but we must learn to consciously be on the lookout for it in our ministries. Here are some questions to help identify the warning signs:

1. Am I making time for my own spiritual growth separate from my ministry preparation?

Dan Webster often uses the illustration of a sailboat to give insight to our interior and exterior selves. The exterior life we live is the sailboat we see above water, the keel represents the interior life that is below the surface—providing stability to the watercraft. I've seen incredible people of God fall hard in the midst of successful ministries, because they were caring for the vessel above the water line, but never addressing the needs below. Take time for your own spiritual growth.

2. Am I touching on themes important to the age and stages of my group?

I know youth pastors who refuse to address issues like respect and dating with their junior high groups simply because they're tired of teaching the topic and feel there are more significant issues. While we should always be seeking more holistic ways of teaching these basic themes, we cannot ignore them because we're no longer interested. Ministry to teenagers often feels like the movie Ground Hog Day—caught in an endless cycle of the same experiences over and over again. Regardless of our spiritual growth, teenagers will always be at the same stage of life as they enter our ministry.

3. Am I listening to students, parents, and church leadership?

Often those around us will send gentle signals (or not so gentle) letting us know when we're missing the target. We need to be wise enough to consider these other voices even when they oppose our ideals and dreams. Proverbs 15 22 reminds us, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.” So we're wise to consider other voices.

4. Will our current programs help sustain the spiritual growth of members of the group when their journeys lead them out of my care?

We must consider the future that awaits the students in our groups. Are the teaching, training, and experiences provided only giving immediate satisfaction, or will our strategies lay the foundation for their tomorrows? What basic doctrines should they understand, and what issues will they face in the years leading them into adulthood?

5. Are my challenges realistic?

I can't tell you how many times I've heard a group challenged to go out and take their campus by storm. Everyone is revved up, then Monday comes and nothing happens. Was the challenge not a good one? Did people not believe it? The challenge may have been lost in this life-stage confusion—assigning a task that the group isn't ready for or capable of achieving. I believe we have a generation of church-attending students who are conditioned to inaction. They cheer and weep—yet the know deep inside that nothing will happen, and no one will really be all that concerned that nothing happened. We need to be very specific in our challenges, but also equip hearers to fulfill the challenges. The challenges also need to be measurable. (Just what does “take your campus for Christ” mean anyway?)

Ministering to young people can be awesome. Not only are they spiritually active now, but great opportunities await them further down the road as they enter adulthood. But let's go beyond just “firing them up.” Let's help them go the distance.

Mark Matlock

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.