In act one of last week’s This American Life entitled, Amusement Parks, Ira Glass [America's best preacher] spends time with Cole Lindbergh. Cole is the manager of the games department for an amusement park called Worlds of Fun in the Kansas City area.
Cole is an amusement park management geek. His life revolves, wholly and completely, around the 30+ teenagers he manages all summer. His job is to supervise them as well as make sure that they bring in as much revenue for the games as humanly, legally possible.
He does this by creating a culture of fun and competition. He only hires extroverts that thrive behind that annoying amusement park microphone. Then he pits them all against each other to motivate them, make it fun, and drive up sales. His teenage employees go all out to make as much money as possible, often working 12-13 hours per day. One employee interviewed was so into the competition that she forgot to take a break… for 13 hours. (Um, child labor laws anyone?)
But near the end of the piece Cole got reflective. He’s 25 years old. He quit his last year of college for an opportunity for this job. His girlfriend says that the job is stressing their relationship to the point where she’s said that if he doesn’t finish school their relationship can’t move forward.
But, internally, Cole faces a bigger problem. As a 25 year old supervisor he knows his days are numbered. He’s reached the pinnacle for being cool to teenagers. They do everything he says and love working for him, but he can feel it starting to slip away.
The Creepy Divide
Cole knows he is about to cross an age barrier from cool, 20-someething guy who loves to hang with high school students to… late 20-something guy who loves to hang with high school students. And he knows that’s creepy.
25 year olds should want to have 25 year old friends. And jobs that aren’t making music videos with teenagers. And his girlfriend wants to get married and have kids… and he knows that means giving up this silly job.
Cole knows he’s too old for games. But he loves it and is afraid to give it up. He is afraid of what’s on the other side of the creepy divide.
Crossing the Creepy Divide in Youth Ministry
25 seems to be that age in youth ministry, too. Many readers of this blog are in their early 20′s, just getting started. They have no idea that pretty soon… inviting 6 girls over to make cookies for a bake sale is about to get creepy. Or having 6 guys meet you at a coffee shop for a bible study. Yeah, that’s creepy too. And playing dodgeball with 12 year olds? Creepy for a grown adult. (Until you hit about 50. Then it becomes bean grandpa in the face… which is always cool.) Have a small group over to play video games until 2 AM… that’s all creepy all the time when you are 32.
Then again, maybe I’m alone in that? Maybe I feel creepy when I shouldn’t at all? Maybe I just suck as a youth worker and I need to get over feeling creepy, go buy something from [insert cool store name] and try to fit in?
The Good News of Aging in Youth Ministry
It’s not that you need to get out of youth ministry when you hit your mid-20s and beyond. It’s that the hang out factor needs to adapt. In fact, as you get a bit older in this thing you want to hang less and invest more. You have family and jobs and other responsibilities.
It’s not that its bad or wrong to hang out with 16 year olds endlessly, for no real purpose. It’s that you aren’t cool anymore. It’s not cool for a 13 year old to chill at the youth pastors house, with his kids, for no reason for hours and hours. Just like it’d be creepy if your teenage daughter hung out with her softball coach, at his house, it’s creepy and looks weird just to hang.
Instead… as you get older in this you feel less like you need to be friends with students. And you can focus on what’s really important.
Is there hope for Cole?
Maybe. He won’t like it. But if he wants to continue his career as the games manager at the amusement park, he’ll need to adapt his game.
And if you’re in youth ministry and you are crossing that creepy divide. Adapt your game and stick it out another decade. It’s totally doable.