By: Gina Yeager-Buckley
Rite of passage: a ritual associated with a crisis or change of status such as marriage, illness or death for an individual. A ceremony or event marking the passage from one social or developmental stage or event to the next. Merriam-Webster
Adolescence: the time of transition between childhood and adulthood; marked by rapid cognitive growth, tumultuous physical / biological change and the inevitable movement from dependence toward autonomy. The constellation of relatively abrupt and profound changes resulting from the physical and emotional rigours of adolescence. Erik Erikson
It is both strange and strangely familiar to see the word “crisis” in the opening text of an article about youth ministry. Strange because youth ministry just exudes fun, vitality, energy and … planning. Familiar because, well, it’s teenagers. And teenagers are curiously surrounded by crisis. The culprit of this crisis lies in the definition of adolescence. Do you see it? It’s the “descriptive” words that carry the blame for crisis. Rapid, tumultuous, inevitable. In other words, becoming a teenager is a force, a force majeure (irresistible combustion). A “constellation.” Something that changes the person experiencing the force and something that changes everyone around the person experiencing the change (parents, siblings, teachers).
We can choose to roll our eyes, wring our hands and tell our tales of “woe is me” and “she slammed the door right after she rolled her eyes” or we can don some old school habits and walk right next to our kids as they walk into these forces—these passages carrying them from childhood to adulthood. It is, in fact, biblical, to celebrate specific moments or seasons in a young person’s life, to mark those moments with worship or feast. To sing hymns and recite words of faith. To give gifts and offer advice or apprenticeship. To use a word that has become synonymous with leadership of young people—to accompany a young person through the passage. How great is this?
Adolescence, at least US/North American adolescence, can be seen as a seven-year span of age (12–18 years) or grades (6th–12th grades). Over these seven years, numerous adolescent status changes occur: puberty, educational structure, licensing, sexual attraction, dating, working, future forecasting (post high school plans, such as college, vo-tech, travel), and voting.
As youth ministry has taken the great step to shrink the distance between the young person and their faith formation (meaning faith isn’t just about a Sunday schedule), there is significant meaning and impact in connecting youth ministry to to the rites of adolescence or the Rites of Passage.
Let’s look at a few of the areas of change and how the church might celebrate these points in the passage.
Puberty (Physiological/Biological/Cognitive) Milestones
- Menstruation / menarche
- Orthodontia (braces, braces going off)
- Grooming and Appearance (shaving, skin care, make up, hygiene)
- Physical growth and change / clothing shifts (uniforms to no uniforms, undergarments)
- Expected independence in project management, memorization, test taking
Suggested ministry approach: Go for the parents! Help parents enter this new frontier by a communal and Christian acknowledgement. Pair it with a fun meal, some community building. Equip parents and guardians by providing a puberty preview. Invite a panel for a fun and informative session about what to expect from their teenagers. You might include a pediatrician, adolescent psychologist, life coach, youth minister/worker, and nutritionist to give practical information and advice. Include time for questions and answers. Close the evening with a “teenager shower.” Just as most parents were honored with baby showers, think about the unique opportunities and challenges ahead for parents of teens. Put together a goody bag with gifts that provide insight, spiritual support and humor: a great devotion book that can be used by parents and teens, healthy snacks that “fight” stress (dark chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, stress spray), and fun items that speak to the greater challenges of parenting a teen.
- New school (elementary to middle school and middle to high school)
- New class schedule (from a more unified to a more diverse class schedule)
- Increased homework
- Combination of physical/pubescent changes paired with educational structure changes
Suggested ministry approach: Care packages for “Back to School” (if you can get these placed in lockers it’s a great surprise or deliver them to houses or distribute during worship). Include a snack, a laminated prayer, a magnetic hook with your church imprint, a small mirror, a pen and pencil with a code “care” word on it (e.g. BELOVED). Acknowledge Back to School “time” in worship. Recognize all students and teachers in prayers. Bring forward all students for prayer. Have those “moving up” in school serve as liturgists annually when school begins. Offer a contemplative moment during worship for worshipers to remember when they were at a moment in their life when they were “moving up.” Invite them to remember what it felt like, what made them excited or anxious, their memories, and what they offer to young people today.
- Drivers Education
- Driver’s Permit
- Driver’s License
- Parental Support
Suggested ministry approach: Give a one year AAA membership to each new driver. Have a keychain created (or purchase an inexpensive one) with a significant word or prayer. Send a card to the new driver with a “congratulations” and a $10 gas card. Parents assume it is their job to teach or provide driving practice, but not all parents are comfortable or equipped to do this. However, someone in the church might be, so ask for help from adult members who might be good and patient driving instructors
Grab Bag – Rites of Passage Points – Celebration and Acknowledgement
- High School Graduation: Party! Talk with parents about a joint church-sponsored graduation party. A big party has the appeal of a crowd and critical mass factor. Many people want to celebrate young people, but don’t have young people directly in their lives. Many families want to celebrate, but lack financial resources. A group can pool their funds and extend the invite list. Special gifts! Hand paint a sheet set that can go with them to college or a new apartment or stay with them if they don’t leave home. Invite the youth group (or the whole church) to a “celebrate our seniors” night. Lay out the sheet sets and fabric paint markers and have fun. Graduate blessing! During worship, invite graduated seniors to describe their future plans and hopes. Invite graduates’ parents to say “thank you” to the church and to name their appreciation and hope. Graduate fun days can be sponsored by specific church groups, such as High Tea by Presbyterian Women or Golf Scramble by the Property Committee.
- First Job: If it’s appropriate, take a very small group (two or three youth or adults) to visit the person at their new job. Don’t hover or linger. Be respectful of their work and the space. Send a card to the new worker. A simple acknowledgement goes a long way!
- First Trip Away From Home: Invite parents or significant adults to write a note to the young person that will be read by the young person on the first night away. It’s often the first night or two that are the most difficult. Set up a “Grace Text” tree. Pair each youth with another youth or a safe adult with a young person to text one text each day with a positive thought, quote or prayer. This should not be a conversation.
- Moving into Youth Group: Send a simple and fun gift to those moving up from elementary to middle school. It might be a basket of treats with a gift tag that reads “What a TREAT it will be to have you in Youth Group!” or a pair of flip flops with a tag that reads “Flop On into the Middle School Room for an End of Summer Party”.
- Other “points along the passage” of adolescence: Scouting awards, Confirmation, dating preparation, report card time, city wide testing, break ups, homecoming (think about those former youth group members who might be returning home), first cell phone, new social media account permission.
There are many “points along the passage” of adolescence. They provide so many opportunities for the church to support young people and their parents during this active and evolving time of life. All of life belongs to God: the tumultuous and the terrific. Learning this, living this, and marking this as a milestone creates community and ultimately honors God’s unique gift of creation.
Gina Yeager-Buckley is a youth worker (volunteer and paid professional). She is a Certified Christian Educator who has served congregations in Texas, Alabama and Kentucky. Gina lives and works in Louisville, KY, where she serves as the Associate for Ministries with Youth for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the national mission agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA).