What to call the collective age group that youth workers minister to can be an hotly debated issue. When you mix the world of polly-correctness with adolescence-driven chemicals and egotistical youth workers, getting the terms right can be a real thing.
So, we asked 187 youth workers the following question:
‘What you think the most respectful way of referring to ‘young people’ is? (plural).’
There were a few given options* with space to add alternatives. Here were the results:
148 said ‘students*’
14 said ‘youth*’
6 said ‘teenagers*’
5 said ‘young people’
2 said ‘young men and women’, ’the beast’, ’kids’, ‘super saiyans’, and ‘yall’
1 said ‘you’ins’ and ‘young church’
0 responses for either ‘children’ or ‘adolescents*’
Here were some of the additional comments:
“I can’t stand ‘young people’.”
“My SP says ‘Young People’ – even when he speaks at Youth Group. Drives me nuts.”
“Personally, I think Students is a much better term. It’s the precedent for whoever comes into your ministry that we are students of God. Youth has such a negative tone in most places today.”
“I see it as holding them up by calling them students. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and I want them to feel respected and that we recognize where they are. Calling them youth (or even kids) is accurate but a little demeaning when they want to be seen as more grown up. Plus, as students in my group it conveys the importance of why they’re at youth group: to learn the Bible, God, maturity, each other, etc.”
“In seriousness though I would still choose students. Students still has a younger connotation and I could see adults being offended by it for themselves like youth being offended by being called kids.”
Now, these responses came almost exclusively from American youth clubs, which is less helpful for us here in the UK, but it does still provide some interesting questions and contrasts. ‘Students’, for instance, almost exclusively means someone in university here, which doesn’t provide us the same clarity as a term as it might in the States.
Personally, I do tend to use the phrase ‘young people’ when talking about, but not necessary talking to young people. It’s descriptive and accurate, and it – I think – doesn’t contain the condescending undertones of other terms.
It’s also worth adding to the discussion that the Bible uses the words ‘Youth’ (בְּחֻרִים), ‘young man’ (בחור) and ‘the young’/‘youths’ (ילדות) – as distinct from children or adults, so some distinctive term is useful to have.
So, perhaps not massively important – or even helpful – to a UK context, but it is still interesting to think about. Our next venture will be to ask this same question to British young people and see what they say.
Are you a British youth worker? We’d love to know your thoughts on this!