In Defense of Youth Ministry

I never wanted to do youth ministry. I never had any experience doing youth ministry. Yet, I now find myself three years in with leading my church’s youth ministry.

While I was in seminary, much discussion centered on the need to “rethink” youth ministry. I got the sense that there was a lot of angst surrounding youth ministry. Even now, while doing youth ministry, I still feel a palatable sense of foreboding about youth ministry from many church leaders. For example, many youth pastors feel the burden of the high dropout-rate statistic which get cited frequently: almost 80% of our youth leave the church during college.  Timothy Paul Jones shows that this statistic is not true.

But despite having no basis in reality, the dropout-rate statistic has caused many youth pastors to rethink their model of youth ministry. In recent years there has been the rise of “family-integrated” ministry which does not have any ministries based on age. Youth, teens, and adults are all in the same studies together. Even if not going that far, many churches, including my own, have adopted such lingo as seeing parents as “the primary disciplemakers in their homes.”

Reinvigorating parents to see their vital role in the home is extremely important. But neither the importance of parents nor a faulty statistic should be enough to change the way we do youth ministry substantially.

Furthermore, caricatures of youth ministry do not help. I was surprised to see Peter Leithart commenting on youth ministry, since I figured he was writing some large theology book.  In reality, all he was doing was summarizing James K.A. Smith book, You Are What You LoveHere is Smith’s description of youth ministry in his book:

“We have turned youth ministry into an almost entirely expressivist affair, surmising that what will ‘keep’ young people in the church is a series of opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith. Instead of embodied worship that is formative, we have settled for a dichotomy: an emotive experience as a prelude to the dispensation of information, thirty minutes of stirring music followed by a thirty-minute ‘message'” (145).

I gotta be honest: nothing that Smith describes in this paragraph applies to my (or most) youth groups. I find it odd that Smith would criticize the church for providing “opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith” through youth group. Maybe I am misreading Smith at this point, but isn’t the whole “faith without works is dead” thing about sincerely exhibiting your faith? Sure, we don’t want to elicit a merely emotional reaction in our students. But don’t we want to provide some opportunities to put their faith into action?

The flow of our youth group is like this. We play an hour of games. Then we teach the Bible for 30 minutes, then we break up into smaller groups to discuss and apply the biblical passage for 30 minutes. We pray in our smaller groups. Then we eat snacks.

The “rap” against youth ministry typically seems to be two-fold. First, youth group is light on substance and heavy on fun. Second, youth group is about creating an emotional experience rather than having the students anchored in liturgy and substance.

Let’s answer these each in turn. It’s true that youth group could be seen as purely fun. But it’s also important to remember that students learn and bond through play. Early childhood education makes this case persuasively. Teenagers aren’t too different. Playing games and having fun creates a shared common experience, especially with adult leaders. Furthermore, males usually learn by sharing a common challenge or experience. It can be very difficult to have most teenage boys open up about their lives when sitting in small groups. But when coupling that small group time with games and fun, it is a powerful way to get to know them and connect on a deeper level.

It’s also important not to place too much emphasis on youth ministry. Youth Groups are one piece of a much larger pie. Don’t expect youth group to save your teenager. Don’t look to youth group to be the primary place where students learn biblical truth–the Sunday morning worship services should be that place. Don’t see Youth Group as exempting you from your biblical role as the primary disciplemaker.

Here’s why “traditional” youth ministry is still important and effective:

1. Students need Christian friends their age

You need people going through the same things you are who also believe the same things you do.  Even as adult Christians, we recognize the importance of deep friendships with people our own age. Why are students any different? Youth Group gives them a space to connect with their friends also in the context of learning Scripture.

2. Youth Group helps students bond to other Christian adults who aren’t their parents

Christian Smith, in his study called The National Study of Youth and Religion, found six factors which contributed to a student “staying Christian” through the transition to adulthood. One of the six factors was that the teen has many adults in a congregation to turn to for help and support (found in It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee). Let’s be honest: teenagers aren’t known for being super open with their parents. Even if you’re the world’s best parent, there still will be times when your kids clam up. They need other Christian adults to turn to. Youth leaders can help fill this gap.

So what is our Youth Group all about?

Two things: relationships and God’s Word. That’s it. We try to velcro students in deep friendship to each other and the leaders. We try to teach them the Bible and let them read it for themselves. That’s the hole that youth ministry fills. Your role as a parent indeed is to be the “primary disciplemaker” in your teenager’s life. Youth ministry cannot replace that. But Youth Group can do other things really well: foster friendships with other Christians and promote Bible study.

 

 

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