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Too old for games

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.

17 Responses to Too old for games

  1. Tom Roepke July 31, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    “adapt” …the key word. great story…and it is totally doable.

    • Adam McLane August 1, 2012 at 7:24 am #

      Thanks Tom. Notice a theme? Those of us who are past the creepy divide get it, those who are either on the divide or aren’t there yet are pushing back…

  2. Sam Halverson July 31, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I agree. While I love that (after 30+ years in youth ministry) I’m now at the “Let’s beam grandpa” stage, I am most of the time meeting with adults who work with the youth, sharing my ideas, my passion, my insight, my fears, and my calling with others who are called.

  3. Matthew McNutt July 31, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    I think that’s been one of the keys for me – I’ve always owned the fact that I’m an old guy with kids in the eyes of adolescents – regardless of how young I might think I am. It definitely changes the way I interact with kids, but done right it’s totally feasible to have a lot of fun. I think what has changed as I have aged is my ability to really affirm, build up, encourage and build into a students’ self esteem. Hanging out with an early twenties guy is cool for a teen, but what they’re starved for is affirmation, love and support from adults, and that is far more rewarding on both sides.

  4. Youth Pastor July 31, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    I totally disagree. I’m 31 and spend a ton of time mentoring students while we do life together. It’s never been creepy and parents/students thank me. I think it’s all about how you approach it. Am I being creepy while hanging out or am I loving them like Jesus?

    • Adam McLane August 1, 2012 at 7:22 am #

      I don’t think you get to decide what’s creepy or what isn’t.

      • Michael August 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

        I agree with the Youth Pastor dude. I mean, I think its how you approach it. Dont be creepy…have boundaries. Dont hang with the 12 year old boy alone…that is way creepy! But hang with three 12 year old boys and live life together. If you hang with students just to hang with students because you are a dork and have no friends your own age, then yes you are the creepiest creeper ever. But if you hang with students to live life together and mentor them, then you are a really good pastor/mentor. If you can be a model Christian for students to follow then I think that is one of the best tools in your ministry. My ministry is quite large and very relational…therefore for me it is easy to spend a couple nights per week hanging out with students who i dont get to see all that often. Some of the students will naturally find you to be awesome and others wont.

  5. Ben Read August 1, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    I’m assuming that by adapt you mean things like setting boundaries with students that let them know you cant stay up til 2 playing halo? This post really discourages me. As a 25 year old, Im saddened by the fact that I only have a few more months before I need to hang up the ol’ youth ministry hat and become a real pastor, because I sure dont want to be seen as creepy.

    • Adam McLane August 1, 2012 at 7:22 am #

      Ben- It’s not about hanging it up. It’s… “what do you do when students don’t want to hang out anymore just because you’re cool.” And you’re already a real pastor. ;)

      • Ben Read August 1, 2012 at 7:26 am #

        I was hoping that was more what you meant, and that I can agree with. Even at my young age I’ve learned that students dont think I’m cool (except for the incoming 6th graders). And I think thats a good point to make, but I couldnt assume that out of the article, maybe thats just me.

        • Adam McLane August 1, 2012 at 7:34 am #

          There’s a whole section called “The good news of aging in youth ministry” that I was hoping clarified it.

          In the early years, what I could call “stage 1 youth ministry” your tactical advantage is that you are an early 20s adult who loves being with teenagers.

          But at an age, in the post I’m ballparking that at 25, the cool factor diminishes. It starts to be less cool to hang out with you because, particularly high school students, start to think… “Maybe he should be with people his own age more?”

          It’s not a firm line and it’s not something to worry a lot about. But the reality is that those who make it to “stage 2 youth ministry” realize they have a different tactical advantage… and their age isn’t it anymore!

          There’s certainly nothing wrong with hanging out with students. (Or enjoying it!) But I think there is a point where hanging just for the sake of hanging doesn’t work anymore.

          As a father of 3 I know that I have limited time to invest in students. It’s not that hanging with students is a bad thing, it’s that I just need to be more wise with my time. If I have 3-4 hours per week with students I want to make sure I’m making the most out of my investment in students lives.

          That’s way, way different than when I was an intern at 23 and had guys over to play video games for 30 consecutive hours.

  6. Paul Turner August 1, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    I crossed the “creepy” divide long ago. LOL. I don’t “have” to meet with anybody really. My job is pretty tame as I run program every week and meet with significant adults in our church who work with our youth. What I try to do is go out with groups that are already going out to eat or meet with kids for breakfast before school. I have quit trying to visit kids during lunch at school. That did not feel creepy, it was creepy, “whose the old guy sitting at the lunch table?”

    I do try to meet with guys in small groups or grabbing lunch with kids before youth or something like that. I am the “father figure”. I make the right decisions, equip others to do ministry, say what needs to be said and what needs to be heard by kids whose fathers, exist and are absent or are non-existent, need to hear. My role has changed and is changing still and I am glad, I was tired for a long time trying to keep up.

  7. Rev. Lori August 1, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Thank You! You have articulated this very well for those of us called to vocational youth ministry! This truly is one of the important points in honoring our call for the “long haul!”

  8. Scott Hoopes August 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    You are totally right when you say the “game” changes or morphs into a different environment. I’m in sort of a unique spot where I’m now able to see some of the students that I played Halo/Worms/Super Smash Brothers, etc. with grow and mature (yes, I did write the word, “mature”) to the point where some of them are now on summer camp staff or some other beginning ministry position. Some of them have realized that I’m not the game player that much anymore, but I am still someone who cares about them and the kids who were being really obnoxious and making a mess at my house are now becoming “that one guy” at youth camp and making many awesome memories for the next generation. This has been a weird, yet cool feeling because those countless hours of hanging out with them was (and still is) crucial to the development and foundation of the relationship we have now. It’s been said before that, “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is so true in tons of ways. So, while you may be past the age of gaming or 20-something, see if you can be a mentor to someone who will be a gamer to others. Be a Paul and find yourself a Timothy to share all your wisdom, passion and zeal for Jesus. Just because you (and myself especially) may feel old, don’t forget that God still loves you and will still use you at whatever stage of life you’re at. Continue to follow HIM and enjoy the journey together.

  9. Kurt J. August 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    25 years into this thing, and I’ve never heard the “creepy” accusation/comment about somebody due to their age. Never, not once.

    However, I have heard it a bunch of times due to….well, due to the fact that some people are just creepy!

    “Creepy” doesn’t seem to discriminate by age: You either are, or you aren’t! There is probably some sort of fuzzy/abstract/hard to pin down, but you know it when you see it line that youth workers cross that pushes them into the “you spend way too much time with students…it’s sorta creepy” zone.

    So I think the need to adapt and adjust with age might be more due to changing life-stages, less availability, maturing in leadership and realize that pouring into other leaders is a great way to have “trickle down” relational ministry, etc.

    I was done…but then had a final thought: I also tend to think that unfamiliarity breeds perception of creepy. Do parents know you well? Does church leadership know and trust you? Are you open and strategic about the reason behind the time you spend with students?

    • Adam McLane August 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

      It could be that I’m just afraid as being seen as creepy. :)

      You’re talking to a guy who borrowed other people’s kids so he could go to the zoo before we had kids!

      I loved Cole story above, by the way. It totally reminded me of a youth worker. His videos are hilarious.

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