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.