Fortress Press

Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens: Being over Becoming

Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens

Being over Becoming

Wesley W. Ellis (Author)


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What happens when we stop thinking of young people as projects and recognize them for who they are, here and now? Wesley Ellis exposes the insidious impact of developmental psychology upon youth ministry and practice, arguing instead for a theological anthropology of youth that can help us see all people--including adolescents--as uniquely created in the image of God. Propelled by the conviction that ministry requires us to see youth as beings rather than becomings, Ellis demonstrates how we can reorient our vision toward ministry that prioritizes relationship and inclusion over rigid developmental frameworks.

A veteran youth minister across multiple denominations, Ellis knows his subject deeply as both practitioner and theologian. Youth beyond the Developmental Lens mines personal accounts, the biblical narrative, and a vast array of theological expertise to release readers from restrictive assumptions that have long bound youth ministry. Ellis's finely tuned pastoral sensibilities bring all these elements into focus, helping us understand ministry as relational and all humans as part of God's story. Rostered ministers, lay leaders, and others engaged with youth will find an antidote to anxiety about the future of the church. Ellis reminds us that God is here already. Our call is simply to be.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506494944
  • eBook ISBN 9781506494951
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 197
  • Publication Date January 23, 2024


Wes Ellis is a pastor and theologian who calls youth leaders to look beyond developmental theories to support young people's faith. His view adds to the youth ministry conversation, inviting us to re-see all young people, not merely as human potentials, but as persons made for divine encounter--right now. Take him seriously, and expect your ministry approaches, youth leader role, and view of "successful" youth ministry to change.

Dr. Steven Argue, associate professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary; applied research strategist at the Fuller Youth Institute; author of Young Adult Ministry Now; Sticky Faith Innovation; and Growing With: Every Parent's Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future

Wes has opened the door for all of us to reconsider the water we swim in as youth workers: mainly, the assumptions of developmental psychology and the ways in which it has shaped our ministerial imagination. Through thoughtful theological reflection and empathetic storytelling, Wes envisions a new way forward for the church's ministry with young people. Calling for a new vision of friendship instead of benchmarks of development, Wes brings a breath of fresh air into often stagnant and overplayed conversations about ministry. Wes wants us all to start with God's activity rather than seeing the work of youth ministry as pushing young people along from one achievement to the next. Take the time and give this book a read.

Dr. Justin Forbes, assistant professor of religion, Flagler College

Pastors, lay leaders, and congregants alike are no strangers to the anxiety that accompanies the aging and declining church in the United States. In Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens, Wes Ellis offers a generous and freeing alternative to the fevered and frantic practices of ministry that have become commonplace in our spiritual landscape, particularly in the lives of young people.

Rev. Jessica Vaughan Lower, pastor and head of staff, San Marino Community Church, San Marino, California

Wes Ellis shakes up the youth ministry world of growth-oriented programs, innovative technologies, and even Christian formation with this dogged critique of how developmentalism, with its penchant for positivism, progress, and maturity, lurks even within good theology to dehumanize young people. What's great, though, is that this is a call forward, or even a call back, versus a calling out--a call back to God's action in ministry, our faithful participation in it, and a deep, reorienting reverence toward the youth we seek to serve. Ellis imagines a youth ministry for developmental refugees, lost sheep, and prodigals that offers gospel hope for the church today.

Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety, lecturer, Princeton Writing Program, Princeton University

American Protestant youth ministry is in a strange place: something is dying, and something new is coming. What that new thing might be, none of us is sure. But I am sure that if what's coming is to be faithful, it will need the kind of thinking that Wes Ellis offers in Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens: Being over Becoming. Ellis is a budding star in practical theological reflection on youth ministry, and this book loudly signals his arrival. With great theological depth, sensitivity to the personhood of young people, and a driving appreciation of ministry, Ellis gives us all a gift in this book. Take it, sink your mind and heart into it, and see things differently.

Dr. Andrew Root, Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry, Luther Seminary

Few thinkers challenge my thinking and practice as deeply and consistently as Wes Ellis. This book is a case in point: he makes a compelling argument, infused with personal passion, that youth ministry might have some of its priorities out of order. Ellis offers an illuminating critique of the subconscious attitudes that pervade and guide churches and youth ministries the world over. He argues convincingly that if we focus only on developing young people along some kind of discipleship production line, we risk overlooking the wonder of God's mysterious work among young people even when they don't behave as we're hoping or realize some kind of preestablished potential. After all, if we're called to follow the biblical example that goes after the one, why do we so often only make room for the conforming ninety-nine? This challenging book will invite you to reflect deeply on everything you thought you knew youth ministry was for.

Martin Saunders, director, Youthscape, Luton, United Kingdom

A theologically nuanced approach to youth ministry that moves beyond gimmicks and quick fixes. Ellis's beautifully written book dares the church to act with joy, courage, and conviction that God is already faithfully present in the everyday lives of young people.

Rev. Dr. Jared Wortman, senior pastor, Plymouth Congregational Church, Des Moines, Iowa

Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens is ambitious, winsome, sprawling, and convicting--easily establishing Wesley Ellis as a bracing new voice in practical theology. But it is also a love letter to every pastor who has loved a teenager who didn't fit the mold. Challenging youth ministry's exhausting reliance on the "developmental" paradigm of theorists like Erik Erikson, Ellis shows the harm that this paradigm inflicts, theologically and practically, on young people who don't follow Erikson's developmental script. Ellis writes with refreshing clarity and concreteness, with bursts of disarmingly personal storytelling. Reading this book made me rethink my own ministry: I wish I'd spent less time investing in youth's potential and more time embracing their messy humanity, confident that God is already at work in their lives (even without me). Can we refocus youth ministry in this way? It's a tall order--but Ellis makes me want to try.

Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary; author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church and The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry