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 their 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 you’re 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.