What is Youth Ministry?
By Randy Sexton
I have a book in my library which I purchased October 23, 2009 but did not begin reading until August 9, 2018. The book is titled Reaching a Generation for Christ and is edited by Richard R. Dunn and Mark H. Senter III. The book was published and copyrighted in 1997 by Moody Press which it says is a ministry of the Moody Bible Institute. The subtitle of the book is A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry, and the back cover introduces the book in this way, “In Reaching a Generation for Christ, more than fifty of the country’s youth experts send a resounding call that the years ahead can bring one of the most exciting and fruitful time ever for youth ministry. Never before has so much youth ministry been taking place. Yet we have barely begun to tap into all the creative, fresh ways to present the good news to this generation…. A comprehensive, compelling new book that expands upon and updates The Complete Book of Youth Ministry, this is a valuable resource for youth pastors, volunteers, leaders, and anyone who is concerned about capturing young people’s hearts and minds for Christ.“
The book contains 7 parts and 32 chapters written by various authors who “have studied youth ministry, taught about youth ministry, and have done youth ministry.” The 7 parts include:
- Framework for Youth Ministry
- Structures for Youth Ministry
- Contexts for Youth Ministry
- Skills for Youth Ministry
- Challenges in Youth Ministry
- Resources for Youth Ministry
- The Future in Youth Ministry
With this introductory article, I hope to launch a new series, “Reaching a Generation for Christ.” I am planning to publish a new article in this series the 4th Saturday of every month. We will examine some of the thoughts and ideas presented in this book, compare them with Scripture and try to draw some applications. The articles will be written primarily by me, with perhaps a guest article periodically. I would appreciate your comments and feedback on the articles, and if you think they contain beneficial content, please share the posts with others.
The question for this introductory article is What is Youth Ministry? As I address this question, there will be four components: What Do the Scriptures Teach, What Has the Church Done Historically, What is a Youth Ministry Culture, and What Action Do I Need to Take?
What Do the Scriptures Teach?
The Scriptures certainly have much to say about teaching children to love and obey God. But the concept of a Youth Group or a Youth Ministry is foreign to the Scriptures. I would concur with the following summation of the teaching of Scripture:
“God has already given us everything that pertains to life and godliness (2Peter 1:3), including the principles and models of ministry in the Scriptures. If our goal is not to grow a youth group, but to see the first-century church ideals and convictions reproduced in the context of twenty-first-century teens, then Scripture does indeed contain sound principles for youth ministries within the church. Every ministry’s goal is to make disciples. Student ministry should be purposeful, active, engaging, and spiritual. For it to be biblical, it needs to follow the model in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 with students being mentored for character, instructed in doctrine, and equipped for every good work so that they will engage in effective ministry. The leaders (i.e., adults, mentors, pastors, youth leaders) are there to model, mentor, and equip these young ministers in Christ-like character, sound doctrine, and effective methods to reach lost peers and make disciples of their own (Matthew 28:18-20). This is clearly the ministry model of Jesus Himself. According to many scholars and experts on the life of Christ, somewhere around half of His original disciples were teenagers when He began His discipling ministry to them. His was the original ‘youth group.’
The Apostle Paul gives us a good picture of this kind of effective mentoring ministry in 2 Timothy 2:2, when he says to Timothy, ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.’ Here is the application for those in student ministry today. Mature believers are called to equip the saints with sound doctrine to produce the outcome of sound living. Now let us bring this all back into a twenty-first-century student ministries context. The goal is making disciples and seeing the power of God unleashed in and through the lives of young people. Teens are at the point in their lives where they need to know the truth of God, how to live a life pleasing to Him, and what task He has called them to. As long as our motivation and message match that of Christ, then our ministries to youth are not only biblical, but necessary.” (https://www.gotquestions.org/youth-ministry.html)
What Has the Church Done Historically?
Conservative Churches of Christ have not historically had a “youth minister” or a specific ministry labeled as “youth ministry.” The conservative view of Scripture is that any organization smaller or larger than the local church is not authorized (except the church universal, of course, which has no physical organization).
Ed Harrell in his book, The Churches of Christ in The Twentieth Century, mentions “Young People’s Meetings” as a source of division. In fact in 1936, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. listed them among his “list of hateful problems.” He says that in that same year, “Guy N. Woods attacked the ‘menace’ of Young People’s Meeting Societies.” He quotes from an article written by Woods, “The Menace of the Y.P.M. Society” that appeared in Firm Foundation, March 17, 1936, p. 1, “Not since the shameful defection produced by the innovation of instrumental music and missionary societies, has a more insidious evil encroached on the purity of New Testament churches. For a time covertly, but now brazen and bold, the Y.P.M. Society, rears its ugly head, as religious journals weekly tell of further departures from the ancient order of things and the simplicity of the Lord’s arrangement” (pp. 45-47).
If you look at the history of youth ministry in denominations you find a “mixed bag.” Dave Wright, coordinator for youth ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has written a very informative article that can be found at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-brief-history-of-youth-ministry/. In this article, Wright traces the history of youth ministry from the beginning of Young Life by Jim Rayburn in the 1940s, Youth For Christ and Bible Clubs of the 50s and 60s, the parachurch movement of the 70s, and the entertainment-driven focus of the 80s. The result he summarizes as follows:
What happened in all that? First, we moved from parachurch to church-based ministry (though the parachurch continues). In doing so, we segregated youth from the rest of the congregation. Students in many churches no longer engaged with “adult” church and had no place to go once they graduated from high school. They did not benefit from intergenerational relationships but instead were relegated to the youth room.
Second, we incorporated an attractional model that morphed into entertainment-driven ministry. In doing that we bought into the fallacy of “edu-tainment” as a legitimate means of communicating the gospel. Obscuring the gospel has communicated that we have to dress up Jesus to make him cool.
Third, we lost sight of the Great Commission, deciding instead to make converts of many and disciples of few. We concluded that strong biblical teaching and helping students embrace a robust theology was boring (or only relevant to the exceptionally keen) and proverbially shot ourselves in the foot.
Fourth, we created a consumer mentality amongst a generation that did not expect to be challenged at church in ways similar to what they face at school or on sports teams. The frightening truth is that youth ministry books and training events were teaching us to do the exact methods that have failed us. The major shapers of youth ministry nationally were teaching us the latest games and selling us big events with the assumption that we would work some content in there somewhere. In the midst of all this, church leaders and parents came to expect that successful youth ministry is primarily about having fun and attracting large crowds. Those youth pastors in recent decades who were determined to put the Bible at the center of their work faced an uphill battle not only against the prevailing youth culture but against the leadership of the church as well.
The task before us is enormous. We need to change the way we pass the faith to the next generation. Believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, we must turn to the Bible to teach us how to do ministry (rather than just what to teach). Students need gospel-centered ministries grounded in the Word of God.
What Is a Youth Ministry Culture?
In the preface to the book Reaching a Generation for Christ, it is stated,
“Though theology remains the queen of the sciences, the developmental, sociological, and historical lenses assist the innovative youth leader in doing theology in the environment of this generation. Even with the four lenses, youth ministry is still an art. The Spirit of God guides the insightful disciple in painting on the tapestry of growing lives. As in The Complete Book of Youth Ministry (1987), this book revolves around three statements amplified in “Part 2: Structures for Youth Ministry:
- Youth ministry begins when adults find a comfortable method of entering a student’s world
- Youth ministry happens as long as adults are able to use their contacts with students to draw them into a maturing relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
- Youth ministry ceases to happen when either the adult-student relationship is broken or the outcome of that relationship ceases to move the student toward spiritual maturity.”
According to some who are active in Youth Ministry, there are five components that are necessary for building a strong youth ministry culture: creativity, communication, creating common experiences, articulating and reinforcing core beliefs, and commitment. (“How To Build a Strong Youth Ministry Culture, Andy Blanks, February 18, 2019) (https://youthministry360.com/blogs/all/how-to-build-a-strong-youth-ministry-culture).
According to one source, “In the past ten years there have been a number of excellent studies on the religious beliefs, practices, and attitudes of adolescents. Unique among these research projects is the ‘Study of Exemplary Congregations in Youth Ministry (EYM), funded by the Lilly Endowment. The EYM Project focused on identifying congregations that consistently establish faith as a vital factor in the lives of their youth and discovering what accounts for their effective approaches to ministry. Seven denominations were involved in the study: Assemblies of God, Evangelical Covenant Church, Lutheran (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist. Dr. Roland Martinson of Luther Seminar was the project director.” (Special Research Report: The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry, (https://faithformationlearningexchange.net /uploads/5/2/4/6/ 5246709/ spirit__culture_of_ym_essay.pdf).
But some believe that current youth ministry culture has missed it’s mark. Notice, “Obsessed with cool. Trendy. Impulsive. Self-focused. Caught up in the moment. Probably sounds like a description of some of the kids in your youth group. Actually, um…well…this is not an article about youth culture or the world of today’s teenagers. This is an article about us—those of us in the youth ministry culture, those of us who work with teenagers—and how we seem to be sliding into an adolescent approach to our faith and mission. Look at our must-read books, listen to our conversations, go to our seminars and measure our values. Even a quick survey of the current youth ministry culture tells the story: We’re not just working with teenagers; we’re starting to think like them. ( “The Culture of Youth Ministry,” Duffy Robbins, https://www.youthworker.com/articles/the-culture-of-youth-ministry/).
What Action Do I Need to Take?
The statistics are alarming. As Dave Wright points out in the article sited above, “Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties, stated this rather boldly in Youthworker Journal in 2003. According to Lifeway Research, 70 percent of young people will drop out of church after high school, and only 35 percent will return to regular attendance. Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion found that most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise do not give it much thought. Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian, asserts, “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.”
The Barna Group says, “When Barna president David Kinnaman published his 2011 book You Lost Me, we heard from many people (especially church leaders) who were shocked to learn that 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background had dropped out of church at some point during their 20s—many for just a time, but some for good.
Eight years later, research for Kinnaman’s new book Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon reveals that the church dropout problem is still a problem. In fact, the percentage of young-adult dropouts has increased from 59 to 64 percent. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. 18–29-year-olds who grew up in church tell Barna they have withdrawn from church involvement as an adult after having been active as a child or teen.”
So what is the solution to reversing this trend? Kinnaman has some interesting ideas that he presents in his new book, which I have not yet read. We may take a closer look at it in future articles in this series, but he introduces the concept of “resilient disciples.”
“It is not all bad news, however. Through more than a decade of interviewing teens and young adults, Barna researchers kept encountering a small but significant number of young Christians who run counter to the overall trend. So, using the same research parameters as in You Lost Me (18–29-year-olds with a Christian background), Kinnaman and the Barna team fielded new research to study the countertrend. Yes, most Christian twentysomethings spend at least some time disconnected from a faith community. But what about those who stay? What, if anything, do they have in common?
In Faith for Exiles, Kinnaman and his coauthor, Mark Matlock, get to know the one in 10 young Christians for whom they’ve coined the term “resilient disciples.” “From a numbers point of view,” Kinnaman says, “10 percent of young Christians amounts to just under four million 18–29-year-olds in the U.S. who follow Jesus and are resiliently faithful. In spite of the tensions they feel between church and everyday life, they keep showing up.”
So what does it mean to be a resilient disciple? As defined in Faith for Exiles, individuals in this group: have made a commitment to Jesus, who they believe was crucified and raised to conquer sin and death; are involved in a faith community beyond attendance at worship services; and strongly affirm that the Bible is inspired by God and contains truth about the world. In addition, they agree with one or more of the following statements that speak to the exilic conditions in which their faith still thrives:
- I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in.
- God is more at work outside the Church than inside, and I want to be a part of that.
- I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me.”
Tune in again next month when we will continue this series.