Anyone who has worked with you learned very quickly that unless the young person wants to change they very likely won’t change. At best you might get some shallow compliance with whatever expectations we have for them but the change is not real and is short lived. This awareness is a key factor when working and ministering to juvenile offenders. Our efforts are likely to be ineffective until the individual accepts the need for real transformation to occur.
A juvenile offender’s motivation to participate in programs perceived to be trying to “change” the individual will be seen as not trustworthy and they will be skeptical that our intentions are good. Too often this population is motivated by fear of consequences (i.e., jail, sanction, threats, loss, etc.) and not compelled by grace and love. In reality, both are needed to bring about transformation. It was God’s wrath and subsequent grace that compels us in our own transformation, empowered by the indwelling Spirit.
Motivation for help changes over time, and offenders can often cycle through predictable stages of change during their engagement with our programs. The Stages of Change was developed by Prochaska to describe the various stages of motivation, and includes the following:
- Precontemplation (unaware of problems – denial)
- Contemplation (awareness of problems)
- Preparation (decision point)
- Action (active behavior change)
- Maintenance (ongoing preventative behaviors)
Juvenile offenders who are in the precontemplative stage of change have little awareness of the problems they are facing and have little intention of changing their behavior. Awareness of problems grow in later stages often leading to intrinsic motivation to change, However, due to the high rate of recidivism and environmental and pro-criminal influence the young person may not move in a linear manner through the various stages, often returning to an earlier stage before eventually seeing a more permanent change in attitude and behavior.
So what does this mean for us serving juvenile offenders in ministry settings? It means that sometimes our expectations are not realistic for the stage of change that the youth is in. If we were able to recognize there level of motivation and meet them where they’re at we may be able to influence them towards the next stage. Imagine this, on a scale from 0 – 5, zero = criminal behavior and 5 = pro-social/God-honoring behavior, do we not expect the young person to jump from 0 – 5 immediately? How realistic is that? In reality most people change like this, 0 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 3 – 2 – 4 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 5…You get the point.
Meeting a young person where they are at means having a long view. It means that for the moment, we may find ourselves tolerating certain attitudes, language, and behaviors until real change can occur. This allows grace to have its way in the heart of the offender.
Take a moment and think of the student your working with and try to determine what stage of change they might be in. Now ask yourself if you need to adjust your strategies to meet him/her where they’re at.
One of the Apostle Paul’s most famous speeches took place at Mars Hill, the Areopagus, in Athens. He noted that they appeared to be a very religious lot of people due to the sheer number of statues they had to their gods. In a brilliant move he identified the one statue that was for the “unknown” god and he saw his bridge. Paul then launched into his epic sermon about the “unknown” God and described our Father to the Greeks. He masterfully used a technique called bridge building to connect with his audience.
Kids today are completely enmeshed in pop culture. We could, and should be aware of what is shaping our youth today and much of what we see and hear impacts them more than we know. But I’m not simply talking about knowing what the newest Katy Perry song is blazing up the charts, what I’m talking about is building a bridge with a language of the soul.
In order to connect with young people they first have to know that you’re interested and trustworthy. They are most likely already suspicious of adults anyway. Too often we have an agenda for them and they know that. It’s what drives them underground many times. What we’re talking about here is a fundamental belief that we have something in common with the young people we love and hope to reach.
If we say things like, “Teens today are just so much more _________ than we were.” or “Kids today are just lazy and apathetic.” we create distance between us and them. If we fail to see that they have the same longings that drove us then and drive us now there will be no bridge to walk across. All we will have to work with is a shallow relationship and all the change we’re likely to affect is shallow compliance to an empty belief system. We have to find common ground and that common ground should be our shared humanity.
In his ground breaking book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark identifies six intrinsic longings of all students. Those longings are: to belong, to matter, to be wanted, to be uniquely ourselves, for a safe place, and to be taken seriously. Who among us can’t relate to those longings? I work with drug addicted emerging adults. Daily they express to me their desire to satisfy those very longings and that much of their behavior was an attempt to do just that.
After some small talk I usually ask a student where in their life do they feel they belong. Where do they and what do they do that makes them feel like they matter? Who takes you seriously? Where are the safest places for you to just be yourself? These are the questions that matter to students even if they don’t have the language to articulate them.
What the Apostle Paul did was provide an opportunity for those in the crowd to have their longings satisfied in a permanent manner by depending on the One true God. A civilization that worships everything is an empty civilization desperately searching for meaning. They apparently hadn’t found that in the many false gods they worshipped.
We have the same opportunity to connect the kids in our community to the very God that Paul preached about to the Greeks but first we must take to time to build a bridge by learning about them and their longings. There is ALWAYS a bridge and it’s up to us to find it.