The Role of Youth Ministry

What is the role of Youth Ministry within the church?

In 1780 Robert Raikes begins a Sunday School for poor children who were unable to attend school. This allowed them to come in and learn how to read, write and do math as well as learning Biblical morals.

1857-59 there is a revival in the US led primarily by the YMCA in which young people are beginning to receive age-specific focus.

1867 – the Young People’s Association of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, NY begun by Theodore Cuyler.

1881 Christian Endeavor begun by Francis Clark which stresses evangelism through and for teenage students.

In 1895 the Baptist Young People’s Union begins.

1903 – Religious Education Association has first meeting

1905 – Hall coined the coined “Adolescence” in a book by the same name

1911 – National Young Life Campaign begun by Frederick and Arthur Wood in Great Britain.

1929 – Lloyd Bryant produced Young People’s Church of the Air broadcast in NY

1932 – Lloyd Bryant hired as a “minister to youth” at Calvary Baptist church in NY

1933 – Miracle Book Club founded by Evelyn McCluskey – first Christian publishing company

1941 – Jim Rayburn begins Young Life

1944 – Jack Wyrtzen holds youth rally at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 attending.

1945 – youth for Christ begins

1949 – First full time “professor of youth education” hired at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

1951 – campus crusade for Christ

1954 – FCA begins (thanks to Houston Heflin and his class on Foundations of Youth Ministry for providing me with this timeline – if anyone is interested, I can provide reference material)

What does this mean? It means that those who believe youth ministry is a 30 or even 50 year old endeavor are wrong! Youth Ministry got its start in 18th century England when a kitchen became a classroom. The first “youth minister” in a church was hired in 1932 not 1962! From the beginning the purpose of youth ministry (which wasn’t often centered inside the church walls) has been education in living as a Christian. As youth ministry was almost always parachurch in nature the atmosphere was less reverent, less sacred, less “churchy”. When the conversation in the churches began to involve considering moving youth ministry into the life of the church itself, the YMCA, Youth for Christ, and Young Life groups had a profound impact on how the church envisioned what that would look like.

The question which I believe we must seriously consider is whether it is a good idea for our paradigm of ministry to be based on models found outside of the church. This is not a legalistic question of whether or not we have authority to do this or that. Or that anything derived outside of the church is evil, or based on human logic. Rather it is a pragmatic spiritual examination. We certainly are indebted to the work of Francis Clark, the Woods brothers, Jim Rayburn and others, but does that mean that we should base the ministry of the church on their work?

It can be argued that if these paradigms are effectively reaching teens for Christ, then that fruit becomes the basis for an answer of, “Yes!” But even if we are reaching lots of teens (and that doesn’t seem to be the rule in our churches these days) how do we deal with the unsettling truth that many, if not most, of them will stop attending church when they are no longer in a youth group?

Do our youth groups, which are based on ministry outside the church, actually perform a disservice by creating an expectation of life in the church that is at best only a reality during the teenage years?

This is a frightening question – it holds potential for unemployment for me and others in my profession – but that is not a reason to ignore it. Instead we must be willing to engage it honestly and critically.

So then should we take the stance, as LaGard Smith and others have, that youth ministry is to be shunned as inherently worthless, or worse, as something more sinister with dangerous consequences for the church?

I don’t think so. I believe that there is a great need for a focused ministry to teenagers. However, I am willing to entertain the discussion that the way in which we’ve gone about youth ministry has been less than ideal.

With that said, I don’t believe that the “youth ghetto” approach is healthy. I do not agree with parents or teens who believe we should have a separate building, separate schedule, separate worship, separate lives. As Yoda said in Episode III, “To a dark place these thoughts will take us.”

Teens are in great need of wisdom; adolescence is a time period where the individual is trying to determine what it means to exist in this world in the culture of adulthood. How can they learn that if they are only around teens!? I don’t mind investing and serving as a mentor/role model, but if I am the only adult our kids see…

On the other side of this situation is the truth that our churches need the teens as well! Our older members need the encouragement of seeing a new generation of Christian servants begin to take their place alongside the great cloud of witnesses. They need the refreshing views of idealism (naive or not) and the zeal that is often associated with the faith of young people. As those who work with teens know, it can be very invigorating and uplifting to be in community with young believers.

So then our congregations, and thus our youth ministries must have as a central focus (notice I did not use an absolute statement like the central focus) the connecting of these teens to the life of the church, both the local church today and the historical church across time and geography.

So for me, I find it necessary to:

1) Bring the Gospel to young people – introducing them to the life of faith. For this reason we focus on a strong program of Christian education, teaching the Word of God in and out of the classroom. This must happen through a partnership with the families who hold the primary responsibility for raising up these young people.

This has been the focus of many good youth ministry programs. Whether the program is called Purpose Driven, Jesus-Focused, Cell Based, Mentoring Based, etc., most have shared a common focus. The Jesus-Focused program refers to this goal as “Bringing life change and making life changers.” I like this terminology, it is a good summary of the Great Commission. But it doesn’t go far enough.

It isn’t enough just to bring teenagers to faith and encourage to take that faith to others. I say this realizing that if we could all say we were doing that much it would be quite amazing. Yet the rapid rate of kids walking away tells me that this alone is insufficient. There are, I believe 2 other aspects needed (Ahhhh…More program language. Unfortunately I don’t know how to have the conversation without making use of this language. I am open to suggestions.)

2) We must be involved in providing tools for sustaining this newfound faith across the lifespan! This means more than just developing strong camps and Bible studies (which I believe are important tools). The tools I’m referring to are tools that can be carried throughout our life. These spiritual disciplines are not intended to teach us to work our way into favor with God as some have claimed. These tools equip us in our journey of faith. They enable to better appreciate grace.

Spiritual disciplines, even the personal disciplines, should always lead the individual back to the community of believers. These tools – if they are truly developing our faith – will never lead us to believe we are able to exist as a Christian free from the Body of Christ. By no means! In fact one of the greatest tools we can develop is a love for and connection with the Church…and that leads to the 3rd purpose of effective youth ministries.

3) We should be focused on connecting our young people to the life of the church – both the local congregation today and the historical church throughout time and location. This is another reason why I believe the youth ghetto is an unfaithful approach to ministry.

So will our teens continue to grow up with no historical conscious? Will they continue to be ignorant of the history of faith within their own congregation’s life? Will they continue to identify church life with the fellowship based party-life of youth ministry? If the answer to any of these questions is yes (and I suspect in many cases the answer to all three is yes) then we should not expect anything other than their continued departure from the life of the church. Why not? They have no investment in the life of the church! Why should they stick around? Why shouldn’t they find spiritual fulfillment elsewhere…or at lest look for it elsewhere.

Okay, this has just about moved beyond the limits of a single post. In truth I have not done justice to this issue. A series of books, lectures…even degree plans may not do it justice. But perhaps we can start having the conversation.


Posted on June 15, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bret, you are tackling some heavy issues which need to be discussed. You’re tackling Romans and I’m tackling Pharmacology, so excuse me if I didn’t “get” everything you blogged.

    I do know that our teens just witnessed true servants in New Orleans. How fantastic that our senior minister, Dwight Robarts, and our Hispanic minister, Tino Trejo, took a week out of their busy schedules to work (and play) with our teens! I’ve been a part of Skillman since the 1970’s and NEVER has a senior minister done more than “talk” to (or at) the teens. But our teens have been blessed by men who prove their leadership by being servants, along with the teens.

    I want these discussions to be heard and will tell as many as I can about your blogs. Peace to you and yours,

    Kris Wilson

  2. Bret,

    In reading this post, it brings up the constant struggle I have with youth ministry, and something needs to be done to address it:

    I agree with your 3 aspects / purposes of youth ministry to (a) bring the Gospel to teens; (b) provide tools for growth; (c) facilitate integration into the larger Church… BUT (and this is a big BUT)…

    That takes committed, stable, energetic, understanding, reliable volunteers. Lots of them.

    One of the reasons I am a youth minister is because I am a very good youth communicator (by His grace, not my ability) and I have a distinct knack for speaking their language at their developmental level. When I teach and discuss, kids listen to me and are interested.

    Most adults, even good solid adults who love Jesus, do not have this knack. Most adults are frightened of teens. Most teens are ick of their parents and quite honestly (a) will not come to youth; or (b) will not act like themselves if they come; when their parents come.

    If your vision of youth ministry is going to gain ground (and I believe it should), then you are going to have to answer some real basic questions about how to form the spirituality of the entire Church in order to become the type of place where Church-based youth ministry becomes a reality.

    For someone with my “skill set” your vision of youth ministry is a bit scary. I am gifted at teaching, counseling, and preaching, in that order. Administration, calling, and riding herd on a bunch of volunteers is not what I do best nor what I enjoy. How does your vision fit with someone like me, who is not so much a team leader as a vision caster?

  3. I’m not sure I understand how what you’ve called the beginning of youth ministry really qualifies or is even relevant, but I appreciate the research. I grew up in church where different parents taught our youth and occassionally we did things together, mostly for fun together. We had no youth program per se. We were a part of the church; there wasn’t really some kind of line. What we did know was that there was a time and place for everything, like, not trying to be the leaders of the church when we were just kids. That was the role of adults with wisdom. We were involved, however, in other things in the life of the church. I’m not sure how this got so complicated and confused in our time – probably about the same time we adopted and affirmed a ‘gap’ between the generations. My generation seems to have invented and now perpetuates this unfortunate idea. I also question the thing about needing to create a ‘partnership’ with parents for the training of the kids. Isn’t, biblically, the mission and ministry of parents the spiritual training of their kids? Isn’t that God’s mandate? IF there is a weakness (because someone will sure say “some parents don’t do their job”) in that among our parents, is the right answer to do an end around and create something that will attempt to do what parents are supposed to do? Isn’t the most obvious answer to work where the problem is – with the parents? If there is a partnering it should be getting parents to partner with a youth program as much as it should be the youth program partnering to support the primary role of the parents, as I think you said (primary). The fellow that suggested that kids are sick of their parents either has no kids or has not spent very much time thinking about his view. I’m a father and have wonderful kids that I believe love the Lord and his church. But aside from that, when my children didn’t want green beans (or the like) because they were sick of it, I garuantee you I didn’t start giving them candy and junk simply because they were sich of the other. Again, if there is a real ‘sickness’ issue from kids toward parents, the problem isn’t best addressed by building an alternative to God’s focus on the family as being the most natural and primary training ground. The answer is in doing something about the problem. This is an interesting discussion, but my sense is that it should be discussed among people whose vested interest is in how churches minister to parents whose very calling is to do what youth ministry can never do. The stats still indicate that kids with godly, faithful parents do well, with or without youth ministry, while kids that have youth ministry in their churches but no faithful parents don’t do very well. I’m rather amazed that among Christian churches there is the need for a discussion attempting to validate the idea that the home is the primary, and therefore the focus of what should be happening in youth ministry. Thank you for your thoughtful approach to this matter. God bless.

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