college travels

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

How do adolescents grow into healthy adults?

Developmental Psychology in relation to adolescence talks a lot about identity formation—how a young person gains their ‘sense of self’. Much of the adolescent years are given to what psychologists call ‘mirroring’—looking to other people to reflect back to us a ‘self’ that we then come to accpet as our own. Will a young person see others viewing them as sociable and productive, or as useless and disruptive? We come to an understanding of who we are by seeing ourselves through the ways that others see us, and the way they present ‘me’ back to me. Out of this process we develop ‘my identity’.

Significant in this process is that of ‘the adult guarantor’. Kenda Dean and Richard Foster describe the adult guarantor as ‘an adult who believes in you before there is any good reason to do so’ (The Godbearing Life, 1998, p.85). They note that having a positive adult guarantor has a more positive impact on youth development than any other youth ministry delivery system.

Chap Clark in his book Hurt: Inside the world of today’s teenagers (2004) goes further to recognise that today’s young people need more than just one adult advocate. No one adult is able to give all the support needed because there are so many demands on adolescent needs today (intellectual, sexual, social, educational, economic etc). Even the best mentors leave, so we need more than one adult to stand for each young person. In addition, there are often so many negative voices surrounding young people, that in the face of multiple negative voices we need multiple supporters delivering the same message for our young people to develop a positive self image.

So where will these adult guarantors come from? Well how about the church? Jesus said that anyone who has left brothers or sisters or mother or father or children for him and the gospel will not fail to receive a hundred brothers, sisters, mothers, children in this present age (Mark 10:29-30). His promise is fulfilled in the church, the household of the living God (1 Tim 3:15).

As the Family of families, our churches are rare inter-generational communities where young people looking to establish their identity in the world can be connected with various adults who can speak words of love and value. For those in broken families, those who’s families have abandoned them as they have embraced Christ, as well as those who face the normal embarassment of their own parents, the church community would seem to be the ideal developmental resource!

So is our message to be, ‘Come to Christ, it will help your adolescent’s identity formation!’? It hardly sounds like the biblical gospel to me! Not only would this be a poor exchange (the gospel of grace for the pottage of developmental psychology), neither can the church community ever be for any young person all that they need, no matter how age inclusive and connected we are.

Ultimately, the role of the adult guarantor, ‘the one who believes in us before there is any good reason to do so’ can only be fulfilled by God. It is God who will never leave us nor forsake us; the multiple needs of developing adolescents are met by the relational unity of Father, Son and Spirit; and the constant negative voices from outside are met by the indwelling voice of the

It’s with this realisation that we find the heart of the task of Christian ministry with teenagers: To mediate the YES of the Trinity that comes in Christ to everyone, including our young people.

Our YES to teenagers will open a door for them to hear God’s YES to them. We’re called to love teenagers with an evangelistic love – not reducing our relationship with them as simply a means to an end, or a clever evangelistic tool. But to love others as Christ has loved us. This will call us to stand with them and for them, and to call them to the new kingdom life that has been opened up to us all through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

With this aim in mind the insights of developmental psychology can point us to recognising the value of connecting young people to adults in the Christian family. One youth leader is able to be one voice mediating the love of God to teenagers; but just as we’ve recognised the extra value of having a leadership team to work together as a community of love mediating the love of God to teenagers, there are also great opportunities for the whole church family to take a part in this task.

The importance of relationships between teenagers and other adult members of a church community was emphasised through a landmark research project on the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents undertaken from 2001-2005 (the National Survey of Youth and Religion, results published by Christian Smith (2005). Soul Searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Oxford/New York: OUP). One of their conclusions was the following:

Another important general way religious congregations may better engage youth is through simple, ordinary adult relationships with teenagers. Adults other than family members and youth ministers could be intentionally encouraged to make better efforts to learn teens’ names, to strike up conversations with teens, to ask them meaningful questions, to be vulnerable themselves to youth in various ways, to show some interest in them, to help connect them to jobs and internships, to make themselves available in times of trouble and crisis, to work toward becoming models and partners in love and concern and sacrifice. This would no doubt resound positively in broader areas of youth religious belief, commitment and practice and in youth outcomes more generally. (p.269).

Are there ways that we can encourage ‘simple, ordinary adult relationships’ between the teenagers in our youth ministries and other adults in the congregation? When it comes to work experience work, can you draw up a list of work experience opportunities with congregation members? Spending a week with a Christian plumber or accountant will not only provide a week’s experience of plumbing or accounting, but also a taste of the issues that a Christian faces in the demands of Monday to Friday working life. On top of that there’s the opportunity for at least one adult in the congregation to know the name of one of the members of the youth group. Who knows whether or not the relationship develops into a lasting deep commitment to each others’ welfare. But whatever develops, the more we are able to develop these connections, the more opportunites for fruitful relationships will exist.

Here is one of the means of grace given to us by God so that together we’d grow in understanding who we are – our common identity as the people of God called together by his grace in Christ. If we can see the adults in our congregations as gifts from God for the spiritual development of the young people, we might also help the adults see the young people as God’s gift also to them.

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  • Thanks for this post Graham!
    You've given me plenty to think about as I prepare my youth ministry philosophy assignment for final submission...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:45 pm  

  • GOLD!

    With your permission, I'd like to print this, and circulate it around the adult Bible Studies in my church.

    Matt Jacobs

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:41 pm  

  • No problem Matt - would appreciate it being properly referenced of course!

    ...same goes for you Nathan :-)

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 10:36 am  

  • Thanks for the post Graham, Im going to circulate it around church as well. With your name attached of course!

    Ps. Do you think Paul could be seen as an 'adult guarantor' type (1 Thes 2:7-12), even though he is speaking in regards to ministering to adults/whole congregation???

    By Blogger Dan, at 6:16 pm  

  • It's always a dangerous thing to read modern psychology back into the Scriptures - we're just not given enough information in the Bible to really know the full dynamics of the relationship.

    The adult guarantor idea is particularly related to the needs of adolescent development and identity formation though, so 1 Thess 2, while an example of good pastoral care (which would also be the mediating of God's YES to people through our Yes to them) isn't what I'm talking about here.

    You could perhaps think about Paul's work with Timothy as an adult guarantor, though from Act 16 there are other adults in Lystra and Iconium who think highly of Timothy already - perhaps it's they who are the adult guarantors?

    Either way, from Acts 16:1-2 and 2 Timothy 1:5 and 3:15 it seems likely that young Timothy had more than one adult who modelled Christian faith to him and helped raise him in the fear and instruction of the Lord.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 10:06 am  

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