The Right Tool For The Job

You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hammer metaphor: "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This metaphor rings true when it comes to how we think about the young people with whom we minister. The tools we have for interpreting young people’s experience will largely determine how we treat them and, ultimately, the shape of our ministry. This works the other way around too. If all we see are nails, we’ll never see the point of using anything but a hammer. This is why it’s really important for us to think about how see the people in our ministries—to wade into that sometimes monotonous debate about what we call young people. Should we call them “kids,” “youth,” “adolescents,” “young people,” “students”? Do we need to make up some new term? Most of us, I imagine, are ready to move beyond this debate. But I think we need to keep coming back to it, otherwise we risk using a hammer when we should be using a wrench… or perhaps a stethoscope or a mirror.

So let’s look at a couple of the terms we use to refer to the people in our youth ministries and what tools they invite us to use.

Students - Some of us use of the term, “students,” to refer to the people in our youth ministries because we think it has more dignity than “youth.” Perhaps we saw something pejorative or maybe just a little awkward about the term “youth.” Many of us started calling our ministries “student ministries” and we started referring to ourselves as “student ministers” or something like that. And while this might avoid some pitfalls of “youth,” it comes with its own problems. Besides the fact that not all young people are “students” in the traditional sense (some young people find themselves in socioeconomic situations that force them to drop out or not to enroll in school), and not to mention that young people with learning disabilities may have a complicated relationship with the term, there’s a more fundamental problem. As Andrew Root pointed out in his short but important article, “Stop Calling Them That,” “student” is a function, not a person. A person can be a student, but a student is not a person. This limits the tools we’ll use in ministry. If all you see are “students,” then you must be a “teacher” and your tool will be “teaching.” However, if it’s ministry we want to be about, not just education, we have to see the youth in youth ministry as persons. “Student” is about doing, person is about being and being-in-relationship. The young people in our ministries don’t just need us to teach them, they need us to minister to and with them. And we don’t just need to teach students, we need to learn from the young people in our churches, because the Holy Spirit at work in them is the same Holy Spirit who’s at work in everyone else.

Adolescents - This is a complicated one. While few would wish to suggest that we call our ministries “adolescent ministries” (though I would venture to guess that there are a few churches out there that do), we are often trained to think that adolescence is just the technical term for youth. But as I have written elsewhere, not all youth is “adolescence.” What I mean by that is, adolescence is not always the best diagnosis for what young people are experiencing. Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere, means “to grow to maturity.” The term took on its technical meaning and its contemporary form after G. Stanley Hall made it famous as a psychological interpretive category within the framework of developmentalism (a framework that really came into its own through the work of Erik Erikson). All that’s to say, adolescence is not actually a thing, it’s an interpretation of a thing. Specifically, it’s an interpretation that sees the young person’s experience as, at its core, a transition to adulthood. The danger in seeing all youth as adolescence is that we will see ourselves—the adults—as the gatekeepers of what young people need. We’ll see our experience, the adult experience, as the best account of what it means to be human and we’ll think our job is to get young people from where they are to where we are. Some youth ministry thinkers have even identified the whole goal of youth ministry as developing adolescents into mature Christian adults. Again, the hammer just sees nails—we see balls of clay to be molded instead of people in relationship. The only tools we’ll see necessary are the ones that can influence young people and move them from A to B. If every young person is an adolescent, we risk turning youth ministry into a Christian adulthood factory instead of a chance to encounter God.

So what should we call them? It’s not perfectly clear. I’m fine with “young people” or just “youth,” even though I would guess that those terms also have their dangers. In the end, we have to recognize that terms like these are just training wheels… we’ve got to be able to ride without them at some point. In the end, ministry is about God and people—persons-in-relationship with God. The tools we need are whatever will help us to participate in what God is doing in young people’s lives, to be present in that ministerial event. This means that the tools and even the terminology will change with what God is doing in that moment and we can’t limit ourselves to just one. We need to be receptive enough to the Holy Spirit to discern which tool is right for the job.