Teenagers will gravitate towards the oldest person in the room who takes them seriously. This is a quote I have read and heard numerous times by youth workers far more experienced and intelligent than myself. I have heard it so many times, but often have questioned the truthfulness of it. Because it seems like teenagers are pulled towards the young and hip guy who can throw a football 50 yards, dunk a basketball, and drives that really cool car. Or the woman who has the world at her fingertips, and is still close enough to the girls age that they see her as a friend. But what about the youth worker in their 50’s or 60’s still going strong? Are they one in a million or are they on their way out the door to retire from serving? I would argue that these adults are just as capable of reaching and leading teens as the 20 year-old college student, if not more.
Teens long to be heard and listened to as a human being, and often times we don’t give them that ability. We have experienced a lot more to life than they have so we jump immediately into fixing the problem and giving our advice. But teens are similar to women in a major way. If I have learned one thing with my marriage to my amazing wife over the last 5 years (almost), it is that sometimes she just wants to tell me something and for me to listen. My wife is not a project for me to solve, and many times she does not even want my input on what I have to say, she simply wants to be heard, validated, and loved. Teens are the same exact way. Maybe this is why there seems to be so many strong women serving in youth ministry and often times it is hard to find guys. Sure, half of a 7th grade boys “talking” is armpit farts and attempts to put you in a headlock, but that builds the bridges to relationships where they feel safe opening up.
And let me share a secret with the older generations that I feel passionate about as a Millennial. Here are a few keys. Firstly, my generation, the Millennials, are now 20+ years-old and are still be treated as children. However this new generation is constantly changing more in every new calendar year than any generation previously. The Millennial generation spanned about 18 years, yet some people refuse to even label today’s generations because they are changing nearly every year. But one thing this generation craves is authenticity. We will refer to them as Gen (Generation) Z, but they are also known as iGen and a few other names. Gen Z craves authenticity and transparency, and if you are real with them they will be real with you. So that is where we begin from. We lead them with openness that we are flawed as well. This does not mean you have to go into a time of confession with your darkest sins to teens, but you can be honest with things you may not know or that are hard for you to grasp and understand as well.
Secondly, these younger generations are sick of hearing everything that is wrong with them. Trust me, I am the most odd-ball Millennial there is. I was married at 19, graduated college on time in 4 years, had my first child at 21, am a member of the church, and drive my own vehicle. I often times complain about “my generation” because of some of the issues I see with them, but I am also a part and product of this generation. Yet I am still trying to cut back on my grumbles of Millennials. Because here is what Millennials hear 24/7. This younger generation needs to get back into the church and this generation is everything that is wrong with the world. And this is what Gen Z is beginning to hear as well. They are the problem and they need to go to church. Here is what I know, we are all broken and sinful and all need the church, however, not one of us is any better than another. And the generation before you said the SAME exact thing about you that you are saying about Millennials and Gen Z, and chances are you hated it and rebelled even more because of it as well.
We cannot expect to welcome the younger generations to the church while we bash and complain about everything they are known for.
Now this is not me bashing the older generations either, but this is me stating two issues that need to be avoided to both welcome the younger generations to the church, but also to effectively reach them. The younger generations are not the church of tomorrow, but the church of today alongside us. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, so we should walk more in fellowship hand-in-hand, rather than ahead of each other to “pass the baton” later. Some great youth leaders I have witnessed throughout the last couple of years were closer to the age of my grandparents than to my own age. So what makes for a great leader then, if it is not being cool and hip? Let me offer a few characteristics I have witnessed in great leaders of all ages:
- These leaders have grasped the truth that leading is more about listening than having all the words to say or being cool.
- These leaders have come to grips that the best leaders are also the best learners. Pretty fitting that Jesus calls us disciples, another word for student or pupil. They have learned that they do not have it all together either and are constantly seeking to grow as a follower of Christ and a leader.
- These leaders are welcoming and loving to teens regardless of how they act. Broken people should in theory accept and love broken people. These leaders do not judge or talk down on teens for their culture or where they are in their walk because they remember just how broken they are, and that only Christ can redeem us.
- These leaders show up in all aspects of the teens lives. This means sometimes attending that cringe-worthy 6th grade band concert or the tough to watch 7th grade volleyball game. You show up to the things that matter to the teens because they matter to you. You text them randomly to check in on them. A phone call the night before a big test just to tell them you are praying for them and know they will do great.
- These leaders love Christ most of all, and out of their love for Christ they want to serve him in any way possible. Sure, working with teens is not the call for everyone. How do you know youth ministry is not for you though if you have never tried it? The disciples thought it was not for them or for Jesus, but he said let them come to him. Are we creating a path for children and teens to approach Jesus, or are we creating barricades to block them?
These are just a few characteristics I have noted about great youth workers of all ages. I have seen seniors in high school lead middle school groups and do great, and I have seen people old enough to be the teens grandparents or even great-grandparents do a great job. But to lead and love teens, you first have to see them as brothers and sisters, and not a project. So you ask how old is too old for youth ministry? I say however old you are to no longer take them seriously. As long as you still have the heart for teens, you do not have to be able to jump so high or run so fast, but simply to love teens and show up in their lives.