It’s short: hardly anybody knows how to care for a youth from 6th grade to 12th grade.
From there, obviously, it gets complicated. I came to that realization last year as my own son hit 1st grade. He had an incredible 1st grade teacher–Mrs. Downer. (Perfect teacher name.) At the end of his 1st grade year, she retired after 30 or so years of elementary education. When we met her, it was so obvious–she was an expert at 6 & 7 year olds. She’d met every kind, and knew how to engage and teach and discipline everything any 6 & 7 year old could possibly throw at her.
This offset another truth I’ve observed over time in parents of multiple children, particularly if there’s a little age difference between them–parents often seem to believe that the developmental information that they gleaned from child #1 will apply to child #2. In most cases, it doesn’t; at that point they can become scared and gun-shy about trying to figure out their own kid. It does in broad strokes, but in the day-to-day every kid will respond to life, discipline, and faith very, very differently.
Oh, faith: enter the youthworker. So in a world where parents increasingly take their kids to activity X to have them learn activity X from the Xperts (sorry), the spiritual development of youth gets similarly compartmentalized. So after the kid gets dropped off at the school to learn football from Coach Bob and his 20+ years of high school football wisdom, we’ll drop him off at the church to learn spirituality from Youth Leader Steve with his whatever years of experience. Behold, the problem.
The average youth room youthworker will never have those years of experience. The average youth ministry career lasts barely longer than half of the amount of time that it takes a youth to move from 6th grade to 12th grade. If your youth ministry career lasts 10 years, you acquire a “veteran” tag because, in theory, you’ve seen 3 years worth of kids from 6-12, but in reality, you haven’t; in all likelihood you moved at some point, and ordinary social dynamics kept you from seeing your former 6th graders to completion or getting to form legitimate relationships with your new, exiting upperclassmen.
From there there’s a weird fragmentation of roles that ruins things for the kids. The genuine spiritual influence in the life of a youth, for good or bad, is their parent or parents. The parents, despite their years of influence, don’t feel equipped to raise their kids spiritually, so they drop them off in the youth room with the “experts” who, in reality, aren’t. The real “experts” in youth ministry haven’t set foot in a local youth room in years. They’re off somewhere writing great things or speaking great ideals or waxing profound about broader concepts of ministry that keep veteran youthworkers clinging to some hope that what they’re doing does matter, even if it’s imperfectly executed in 3-6 year bursts of church ministry across their 10-15 year career. And that’s a best case scenario.
Meanwhile a kid somewhere bounces from spiritual oasis to spiritual oasis found in their friends’ half-formed spiritual identities. While we somehow can’t seem to align actual influence (parents) with perceived source of influence & knowledge (youthworkers) with actual knowledge (the writing, speaking, teaching, non-youthworking vets).
It seems like all the ingredients are there, but this pie sucks. It’s broken.