Back to the Drawing Board


Thirteen years ago I decided that I wanted to be a youth minister. Upon realizing this I immediately began praying, I spoke to my parents, I spoke to the youth minister at my home congregation, I spoke to other youth ministers, I spoke to my friends. After all of this I new that indeed God had called me to youth ministry. All that was left was to wait about 4 more years until I could go to college…

Those who know me are aware that I’m uneasy (to say the least) with the paradigm of youth ministry which is currently in place in the Church (big “C” here because the paradigm really doesn’t change from one faith tradition to the next). I’ve spent some time studying and a little time writing on this subject – you may have read the post Toward a Theology of Youth Trips which got me branded by some as a trouble maker. The para-church style of youth ministry, where the youth group is nearly completely separate from “Big Church” and where absolutely everything is hot-off-the-press and consumed with up-to-date youth culture – often to the exclusion of anything that is not teen focused – is very similar to the title of a movie out right now – Failure to Launch.

The origins of youth ministry were in the para-church setting – hence, no surprise, and no harm initially, that a similar approach would be employed by the Church. However, we have failed to grow beyond this initial stage. Like a 30 year-old, still single and living at home with Mom and Dad, something natural has failed to mature and has thus become unnatural.

Don’t get me wrong, the paradigm of youth ministry that we have is better than refusing to address the needs of young Christians. I have known many congregations and ministers who have not only “made do” with the situation, but have developed extremely effective, faithful and healthy communities – ones focused on the lifelong growth and spiritual formation of students. Bashing youth ministry or the Church has never my intention. I feel that ministry to students is one of the most vital efforts in which a church should be involved. I have however tried to voice concern and engage in conversation directed at discovering an alternative.

I often quote Brueggemann who reminds us that the prophetic voice should emanate from within the community. I’ve tried to do this. As someone committed to youth ministry, I’ve called for a renewed look at our youth ministry. As someone who is engaged in study, I’ve called youth ministers to be students of a higher caliber than is often expected. Unfortunately this is apparently not “inside” enough. It has been suggested that until I have been in a congregation for 15-20 years I should not presume to offer critique. And recently I was told by a respected leader that because I don’t fit the mold of the traditional approach to youth ministry, I’m probably not cut out for congregational youth ministry. I was actually encouraged to find other employment because if I was a good youth minister, someone would have hired me by now.

For my friends who read this blog, please do not post disparaging comments about this unnamed individual – whether you know who it is or not – if you do the comment will be deleted. Many ministers and congregations have benefited from his wisdom, counsel and advice. Honestly, even I don’t know what reasons he has for making such a statement – after all he once told me that it takes an average of 9 months for a minister to find a new church, so I’m assuming there is something more behind this than just my 8 months of off-and-on job searching. Interestingly enough, the same person who made this comment may well have just helped me find a job…so I guess I owe it to him to accept a little criticism from time to time! I don’t harbor any hurt feelings, rather I appreciate his commitment to the Church and those who would serve. I also realize that any time someone calls for change there is opposition, so my resolve has not been affected.

With all of this I’ve realized a couple things. I think that it is very true that I am not in a place at all to critique too heavily an individual congregation’s approach to youth ministry or any ministry for that matter. I am grateful for the admonition not to think to highly of my opinion. However I do believe that there is a need for individuals who care for our youth to look very critically at our overall system because no matter how you break it down, our young people are leaving the Church in droves. I don’t presume to be an expert, but I have a passion for seeing the Church minister to students, so I will continue to remain in this struggle.

Also, and perhaps this is the more immediately pressing issue, I’m going to adopt a new strategy – in practice and with this blog. Perhaps addressing youth ministry reform is too narrow to be effective. I’m not trying to be novel here, I have no delusions that I’ve hit on something new or found “the missing link”.

However, while I am all about making sure our message is culturally relevant, and actually I really like coffee houses (I’m not even inherently opposed to having them in our church buildings), I believe that consumerism and marketing have become driving forces for so many of our decisions. We offer sacrifices at the altar of the business model and refuse to act until we’ve received confirmation from the latest trend gurus.

While I am still committed to youth ministry, I must admit that I feel the need to focus more generally on pastoral theology, especially as it pertains to the Church’s approach to specialized ministries.It is not the specific workings of these ministries, but rather the way in which we think about their existence and role in the overall ecclesial structure that concerns me. Pastoral theology seeks to integrate our theology with our practical ministry and I want this blog to serve as a place where that dialogue can be hashed out. We’ll see.

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Posted on April 3, 2006, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Bret,

    Thanks for sticking with it through these discouraging times…

    You thoughtful consideration of tough issues on this blog helps to keep me fresh and focused. Keep it up…

    Blessings,
    B-Rock

  2. Brock,

    thanks for the encouragement. I hope that the minor changes I’m making will (among other things) be both an encouragement and a resource for youth ministers as they continue to wrestle with how the youth ministry best functions as part of the whole church system…staying fresh and focused is a tough thing to do in this line of work!

    grace and peace my friend

  3. Casey ("CP") McCollum

    Bret,
    I want to thankyou because I just now realized, after reading your post, that I am not alone – and that is a good feeling. I just took the youth ministry job at Richardson East and I am about to graduate (M.Div) and have had many of the same thoughts as you about youth ministry (and the church).
    It is painfully evident that the ‘system’ is broken and as we tacitly hemorrhage we rely on Doug Fields for bandaids.
    Keep up the blog, more thoughts to come…

    Oh, PLEASE check out David White, Practicing Discernment with youth also Dean, Practicing Passion – These two authors finally provide a much needed theological backbone to youth ministry.

  4. CP,

    I am glad that what I’ve said resonates with you…or perhaps more accurately, I’m glad that you no longer feel alone in your discomfort. I had a similar experience 5 years ago in my first full-time position after leaving ACU. It was both frightening and relieving all at once: a relief to realize I wasn’t alone, frightening because I knew that finding others in this boat meant that I wasn’t going to be able to just “let it go”.

    Congratulations on the RE job by the way. My family and I have been attending RE for a couple months now and have really been ministered to by the family there. I think very highly of Houston and believe that you will be blessed through working with him. I think he will help you tremendously as you wrestle with the ups and downs of congregational youth ministry.

    Thanks for the heads up on those texts, I will be checking them out! I think Dean is great writer – The Godbearing Life is another one of hers that is very good.

    Mike Higgs’ Youth Ministry from the Inside Out and Richard Dunn’s Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students are also important. Both of them “attack” our notions of successful leadership, though Dunn’s may lean a bit too far on occasion.

    Thanks also for commenting, I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

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