The distinction between college ministry and youth ministry is based in part on the assumption that college students are young adults, living more or less on their own, and dealing with more adult-like challenges, while youth are still under the control of their parents/guardians.  Notice the qualifiers in that sentence: “more or less” and “adult-like,” for example.  Two books with two distinct theses are having a fight in my head.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s, Emerging Adulthood, has been making the rounds for at least a couple of years.  Based on social science research, he describes a new phenomenon in the 18-28 year-old age range, which is encapsulated in the book’s title.  The young people he studies neither define themselves as “young adults”  nor as older youth.  By their own self-description, they are taking longer to become adults than earlier generations and that “adult” has less to do with chronology than the old “18” or “21” threshold (depending on the legal drinking age) and more to do with having achieved or arrived at certain markers points in life.  One is not fully “adult” until one has one’s own place, a more-than-temporary job (one that is starting to look like a career) and sufficient income not to be dependent upon parents.  Such criteria are used by young people themselves for deciding when they are adults.

A counterpoint to this idea is offered by Philip Markham, a British psychologist in another Oxford Press book by the title, The End of Adolescence.  Most of this author’s work is based on research in the UK, but his thesis still stimulates thought.  He argues that adolescents (teenagers) have been badly stereotyped through popular media (TV, movies, magazines) as spoiled, volatile, hormone-driven miscreants.  Quite the contrary to this picture, most of them are reasonably happy, well-adjusted, responsible human beings.  Furthermore, by early teens, they are quite able to handle complex ideas and life challenges.  In fact, he relates how some teenagers are taking care of disabled parents, for example, and carry on quite well, with a mature sense about the challenges life has dealt them.

Now to the really provocative claim from Markham: he believes that 14 (yes, fourteen) is, generally speaking, the age at which young people ought to be considered as adults.  Obviously, this blog cannot spell out how he qualifies his claim, but all things considered, he believes young people at this age should be able to do virtually all the things that adults do.  He doesn’t recommend that 14 year olds get married, of course, but he does say that they should be able to engage in other “adult” activities, like voting.

For a long time, I’ve worried about how we (especially parents) have prolonged adolescence.  Labor laws originally designed to protect children from sweatshop situations also prevent able-bodied and interested teenagers from undertaking gainful employment.  Until kids turn 16, if they don’t live in rural areas where they can do farm work, or if they don’t belong to a family running a business, the only options for working are pretty well limited to having a paper route (which can be a dangerous occupation when you try to collect – my son and I were literally run off a place one evening).

These books have implications for college ministry.  Are we working with adults or with youth or with “emerging adults?”  Answering this question helps to determine the ministry we undertake.  What do you think?  If you work with 18-28 year olds, how would you describe them?  What kind of ministry do you think we should do with them?

If you are in the 18-28 range, how do you see yourself?  Your friends?  Your age group?  And would you tell your experience and your opinion about the kind of ministry offered for people like you?  Are we on target?  Missing the boat?

When Do We Become Adults (and Why Does It Matter)?

2 thoughts on “When Do We Become Adults (and Why Does It Matter)?

  • September 4, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I’d be really interested in hearing what answers you might receive. I think I could answer these questions, but I live in the “church world” which to me seems a bit outside of reality.


  • September 6, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    In the college ministry I serve I tend to approach the students as adults in terms of being responsible for themselves or handling grown-up ideas and realities, but they are adults who generally all inhabit a similar sub-cultural sphere that is associated (at the moment) with young-adult-hood.


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