Ministry with youth is distinct from ministry with young adults. Youth ministry is about forming teenagers as disciples. It requires an understanding of the unique cognitive, physical, and emotional development happening in adolescence, and it relies on constructive relationships with teens’ parents and an appreciation for the institutions that shape teens’ day-to-day experience: family, school, the law, church.
None of this is true of young adults, people in their 20’s. Ministry with young adults is about forming the habits of discipleship among people for whom institutional constraints are disappearing, or, at least, changing dramatically. Post-school, post-nuclear family, post-youth group: young adulthood requires the navigation of a new set of institutions, like one’s job or marriage, albeit with a more fully developed cognitive, physical, and emotional toolkit. Ministry with that cohort relies on quality relationships with them as individuals and in the context of their emerging communities, including, though not limited to, the church.
So youth and young adult ministries are distinct in their objectives, challenges, and opportunities. In a community of a certain size, you really need those ministries to be in different peoples’ portfolios for them to thrive.
And yet . . .
There is this continuity, isn’t there, between these two arenas of faith formation. Extended Adolescence has become a normative concept, and not in the pejorative sense. From that Atlantic essay linked above: “Far from a contributor to emotional immaturity, the trend toward an adolescence that extends into the mid-20s is an opportunity to create a lifelong brain-based advantage.”
Beyond developmental understanding, there is the continuity of mentorship. The church I serve has intentionally invited young adults into youth ministry leadership roles from the beginning (many of those young adult leaders are now in their 40’s and still at it). This is for two reasons: young adults represent the thing that adolescents are growing toward, so structuring contexts for teenagers to get to know 20 somethings gives them models and mentors of what faithfulness looks like as an early adult.
Secondly, youth ministry is a terrific lab for leadership development, one of the church’s best. Youth ministry staffs are brimming with young adults. The “Emergent” churches that sprang up as a cultural and intellectual alternative to late 20th century evangelicalism in North America and the UK were largely led by people in their 20’s and early 30’s who had cut their teeth in youth ministry organizations like Young Life and InterVarsity. Many of those emergent churches are still thriving. That’s not an accident.
It seems to me like, in the right setting and with the right leadership, there cold be some creative potential for hitching ministry with youth and with young adults together.
Is this happening anywhere?