Youth Ministry and Development: Beyond Gerontocentrism

"...true identity is ours by redemption, not by development." -Kenda Creasy Dean
This weekend I went to the IYM's Youth Ministry in Small Churches event at Carmel Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia. The event was wildly successful and thoroughly insightful. As a new member of the IYM staff, it was a real pleasure for me to be a part of the event.

As I said, the content of the event was thoroughly insightful. I think youth workers and Pastors walked away with some real perspective and tools for their ministries, whether they be from larger or smaller churches. And, truly incidental to the wonderful success of the conference was a basic assumption that was made about what youth ministry ultimately is. In one of the opening conversations, a working definition was offered "that we can all pretty much agree with." It said that youth ministry is " disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood." Now, this was merely offered as a definition with which we could work in order to discern between experiences that are essential and those which are "very helpful" in youth ministry (an important distinction to make!), and it served that function quite effectively. But I wonder if that definition is really the best one for us to be operating on. It was perfectly fair to assume that we'd agree on that definition. I am sure, from my experience, that most of our ministries either explicitly or implicitly aspire to such a definition quite faithfully. But is that really the best one for us? Is youth ministry really about making "mature Christian adults"?

In the following few thoughts I'll be criticizing this perspective. I think, for the sake of clarity, I should mention that I'm not criticizing the fact that the definition was used, per se, but the implicit culture of youth ministry which I think he insightfully identified in his definition. I am criticizing the fact that it's fair to assume that everybody's using this definition. And it'll be helpful, too, for me to mention that my criticisms are internal. This is the definition by which I've operated at every stage of my own ministry experience, so I am complicit in the very perspective at which I'm throwing a very big question mark.

Erik Erikson
What's interesting about this definition--" disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood"--is that what lies at its center, as its ultimate concern, is not the youth, as such, but the Christian adulthood into which we are trying to develop them. Ministry becomes fundamentally goal oriented... not just goal oriented, but normatively so. We have inherited this focus on development and maturity from the world of developmental psychology, particularly from the "stage theories" of folks like Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. While we owe much to these theorists, perhaps we've taken their fundamental assumptions a bit too seriously. The basic presupposition of the models of developmental psychology which we've inherited is that life itself can be understood as development through stages. For example, Erikson understood life as consisting of eight stages; each one leading to the next. Childhood or adolescence, then, is defined and scrutinized not so much on its own terms but according to its effectiveness in developing from itself into something else. Each stage of the life cycle receives its core value from its capacity to develop and contribute to development from one life stage to another, until it's goal, maturity, is reached. Youth is only of concern as a stage on its way to adulthood and thus it is judged according to the standards of adulthood. Childhood receives a somewhat apophatic definition. It is what it's not. Since maturity is where it's all headed, each stage is essentially understood according to its basic immaturity. It's all about "entering the adult world," so the value and importance of adolescence, as such, are co-opted by and instrumentalized for adulthood. The ultimate concern, when the eye is turned to adolescence is not adolescence but adulthood.

We've definitely taken this bait of developmental psychology in youth ministry--hook, line, and sinker--because, well, how else should we see it? How else can we understand youth ministry but as making Christian adults?

Not to say that there aren't critical apparatus built in, at some level, to the basic perspective of deleopmental psychology, but according to its popular application, it has fundamentally centralized adulthood and maturity at every stage of development. Sociologists and anthropologists in the world of childhood studies have offered perspectives that can definitely be seen as criticisms of these basic assumptions of stage theory. While admitting that immaturity is a "biological fact," some sociologists have suggested that childhood, as "a fact of culture," is to be understood as a social construction (see Allison James and Alan Prout, Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood). And, as a social construction, we must wonder if childhood must be understood according to its biological immaturity and we must consider what implications emerge from allowing adulthood to set the terms for our concern for childhood (or adolescence). In rethinking the "ideology of development" implicit in traditional perspectives on developmental psychology, Chris Jenks coined the term "gerontocentrism," (stemming from the greek word "geron," for "old man") likening the ontological prioritization of adulthood in sociological study to ethnocentrism (which is the "evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture" according to my Google search). It will be helpful to quote Jenks at length here:
"Childhood receives treatment as a stage, a structured process of becoming, but rarely as a course of action or coherent social practice. The type of 'growth' metaphors that are readily adopted in discussions about childhood all pertain to the character of what is yet to be and yet which is also presupposed. Thus childhood is spoken about as: a 'becoming'; ...taking on; growing up; preparation; inadequacy; inexperience; immaturity, and so on. Such metaphoricity all speaks of an essential and magnetic relation to an unexplicated, but nevertheless firmly established, rational adult world. This adult world is assumed to be not only complete, recognizable and in stasis, but also, and perhaps most significantly, desirable. It is a benevolent and coherent totality which extends a welcome to the child, invites him to cast off the qualities that ensure his difference, and encourages his acquiescence to the preponderance of the induction procedures that will guarantee his corporate identity. For the anthropologist to proceed from such a stance would be for him to invite the charge of ethnocentrism." (Chris Jenks, Childhood, Second Edition, 8). 
When childhood or adolescence is seen from a gerontocentric vantage point, as is the case in the worst manifestations of "stage theory," it carries with it a distinct, though implicit, dehumanizing quality. As Alan Prout and Allison James write, "The dominant developmental approach to a self-sustaining model...rationality is the universal mark of adulthood... childhood is therefore important to study as a presocial period of difference, a biologically determined stage on the path to full human status i.e. adulthood..." (James and Prout, 10). With the standards of adulthood setting the terms for the value and humanity of children, the standards of failure and achievement are thereby also set. "Failure to be harmoniously socialized into society's functioning meant, in effect, a failure to be human" (14). The success of childhood, and therefore adolescence as well, is contingent upon it's development. And from this gerontocentric vantage point, the value of ministry, too, becomes contingent upon its ability to develop; in this case, its ability to develop "mature Christian adults." So, since our success in ministry depends on it, either implicitly or explicitly, we are forced to prioritize those adolescents who have the best potential and those kids who exhibit the qualities which best correspond to the adulthood into which we are developing them. We are forced to set goals which prioritize the success of the adolescent to mature, and thus we are forced to set goals which prioritize the most likely to succeed, the superstar of the youth group.

In Youth Ministry, all our goals--or to put it in theological language--our eschatology has been hijacked by a normative gerontocentrism. Our ministry to young people is determined by and centered upon not the young people themselves in the reality of their present, but upon the adulthood into which we want to "disciple" them. What should be normative in youth ministry, is neither a developmental psychology of the "life cycle" or an ethical sociology or anthropology but, in fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ which has, at its center, the incarnation of God in the broken body of Jesus Christ on his cross. Every goal of ministry and every Christian eschatology must be determined by and articulated according to this gospel. I could say a lot more about the relationship of gerontocentrism and eschatology here, but suffice to say for now; eschatology is not about the development of the present stage of the world into some other more important stage, it's not the extension of the world's present potential into future realization, and it's not the resurrection of those parts of the present which are not subject to death. Eschatology is the interruption of God's grace, God's resurrection, God's future into the reality of the very present in which the cross of Jesus stands, announcing to that present not a future into which it must be developed but a future, Jesus' future, which becomes our future. The present is not becoming the future. In Jesus Christ, God's future becomes our future. (This, I suggest, is one way to understand the two-sided coin that is Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope and The Crucified God).

Ministry, then, determined by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not contingent upon the success of development into maturity. In essence, it's not primarily about 'growth.' The object and center of ministry must not be the Christian adulthood into which adolescents are developing, but the adolescents themselves, as legitimate humans and social actors in their own right. We need not set goals external to the youth themselves. We need not set goals which prioritize the superstar with the greatest potential to reach the goals we (or God) have set for them. We are free to define youth ministry according to the ministry we extend--i.e. things like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23)--in the present moment, not just to the kid most likely to develop those attributes (I am willing to contend that "the Fruit of the Spirit" are not to be conceived as attributes at all), but to the "weary and heavy laden" (Matthew 11:28) who are desperate to find rest for their souls. Growth may follow, and we trust that it will, but the success of our ministry does not depend on growth. The success of our ministry depends on our love for people, regardless of their ability or inability to mature into Christian adulthood. Ministry, ultimately, depends on the encounter with God which occurs in the life of every child and adolescent, the divine and human encounter which Christ descended into hell to pursue.


This is the clearest articulation you've yet offered of this central concept. And it is the best. I think I see what you are getting at, though I still think, for some reason, your clarity gets fuzzy right around the Moltmann paragraph. You start to traffic in that section in aphoristic phrases that loop back in on themselves with terminology. The rest of your writing is incredibly clear. For some reason, that part is still not clear to me.
Nevertheless, I really, really appreciate the perspective you are bringing to this. This makes so much sense to me in a thousand ways. Thank you for articulating this.
wellis68 said…
Thanks for the feedback Marc! It's ironic that the Moltmann stuff is still the weakest part of my argument. I would have thought it'd be the other way around. But I agree with you... that part needs work. And it's because it's not yet perfectly clear to me. It's thanks to you that it's as clear as it is. Hopefully it will continue to become clearer and clearer. Thanks so much for the feedback.