This is an adapted version of an article that I wrote for Youthwork magazine a few years back. I’ve revisited it because of a conversation with a youth worker this week which reminded me that the mindset described in it is still alive and well…
The minister could not hide his excitement at the news that at last, another youth work volunteer was ready to join the church’s meagre team.
‘That’s fantastic!’ he enthused. ‘We’re so short of help. We’ve been desperate for someone to work with the younger group for months now!’
The volunteer stopped grinning, and turned slightly green. The younger group? He hadn’t put his name down for that. Immediately, thoughts of screaming, immature, unhygienic tweenagers buzzed into his head like a plague of locusts. No no. He wasn’t giving up two nights a week to work with large children; God was calling him to work with the nice, sensible 17-year-olds, with whom he could share pizza without fear of it ending up splattered across the walls. He pointed this out, and the minister, slightly deflated, agreed.
15 years earlier, that same volunteer was a screaming, immature, unhygienic tweenager. He and his friends created regular havoc for the staff of a church-run youth project in his town; a drop-in club operating as a weekly outreach to unchurched teens like him with little to do. But thankfully, those volunteers were made of sterner stuff. When they looked at the boy and his friends, they didn’t just see a bundle of pre-pubescent difficulty; they saw impressionable young people desperate for validation and struggling to work out who they were. They saw kids who were pumped full of energy and looking for a place to channel it. They saw a chance to change and impact lives.
The boy didn’t become a Christian while attending that group. He did willingly sit through God slots when a game of murderball was promised at the end; sometimes, at the attached holiday club, he even joined in with the occasional loaf-and-fish-themed song. But by the time he and his friends decided they were too cool for such things, he hadn’t been led through any sort of sinners’ prayer, or even nodded his way through a gospel tract.
But a year later, that boy did make a Christian commitment. He heard someone else talking about his faith, and suddenly everything clicked into place. So the question is this: would that commitment have been made if those faithful drop-in volunteers – who probably often felt as if they were labouring fruitlessly – hadn’t put in the groundwork? I don’t want to second-guess God of course, and there’s no way of knowing the answer, but writing now as that very same young person, and that very same youthwork volunteer, I’m pretty glad they did.
So I’d like to be able to say that after consideration, I ran back to the minister and offered to head up the church’s 11-14s strategy for the next decade, but I’d be lying if I did. Instead, he found someone infinitely more gifted and suited to the job than me, and thankfully, that group is now flourishing. In hindsight however, and after talking with my good friend, and US youth ministry expert Mark Oestreicher, I can admit to a tinge of regret for not being more open-minded.
Marko is a passionate young-teen specialist, who takes issue with those who, like me, have been guilty of overlooking this vital age group. When we’ve talked about this, he’s not only underlined the need to catch them young; he’s also debunked the myth that 11-14s work is little more than a prologue to the real stuff that starts when they ‘mature’ in their mid-teens. The true stories he tells, including that of the 13-year-old already involved in Christian leadership, surprise and challenge me.
I’ve since experienced working with young teens, and it isn’t the horror that I had foolishly imagined. It’s not easy either though – these young people are after all going through what Marko calls ‘the second most comprehensive stretch of change in the human lifespan’. But considering that researchers both sides of the Atlantic put the average age of Christian commitment at just below 12, that’s no longer a good enough reason to claim that the ‘real’ work can start when they’re 15. If some of us don’t readjust our focus, we may never see them by the time they reach that age.