Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Youth ministry is a tough needle to thread. It requires a lot of personal commitment and patience, an expectation that your target audience is going to show a general lack of interest and enthusiasm about most of the things you do for them, and a willingness to sacrifice sleep and earn your gray hairs early.
It’s also a tough needle to thread because it’s a field of ministry surrounded by towering questions and often conflicting answers.
In this article, I want to raise seven of what I think are the most pressing questions many churches and youth ministers face when attempting to design and implement a ministry of their own. Though I will share some of my own thoughts, the purpose of this article is less about what I think and more about provoking a conversation. What I hope will develop here is a dialogue about creating reasonable and sustainable expectations for youth ministry that can work at any church, no matter its tradition, location, or size. Then, in the second article of this series I hope to draw on some of those thoughts and ideas as well as my own experience observing, participating in, assisting with, and leading youth ministries to present the basic framework for a model that attempts to address these issues.
1) To Be Relevant, or Not to be Relevant?
This has been a buzz-word in youth ministry for a while now, and everyone has an opinion. Some think youth ministry should be all about replicating contemporary youth culture with a Christian spin. Others think youth ministry should ignore the world outside the church and plunge ahead with the tradition that’s lasted two-thousand years.
While my own feeling is that any ministry led by leaders genuinely invested in the lives of their youth cannot help but become at least somewhat relevant through osmosis, this doesn’t answer some of the bigger questions surrounding this debate: do we need a rock-band or should we make our kids learn 11th century chant? Do we use Powerpoint, You-Tube videos, Facebook, etc., or do we stick to old-fashioned snail-mail announcements and the hymnals in the pews? Do we caravan kids from the church to the state championship game to watch other kids in the youth group play or do we hold a prayer vigil with the kids too nerdy to go to the game on their own?
Lots of different, well-meaning youth leaders have answered these questions in starkly different ways, how would you?
2) Where Do We Put All These Kids?
At one of the first churches I worked for, I was told in no uncertain terms that the youth were expected to be in the pews for the service on Sunday morning. And that was that. Or so I thought. That rule met with so much resistance from the youth it just about drove me crazy. Finally one day I asked some of the kids, “why do you hate going to the service so much?” “Its boring,” came the all-too-predictable reply. While I still dragged them upstairs after Sunday School every week, secretly I agreed.
There is a wonderful analogy that I was just told recently by Roland Martinson about a swimming club. While the adults swim, the youngsters are taken to a back room and told stories about people swimming. Then they gradually move up to coloring pictures of people swimming. Then they start watching videos and having discussions about swimming. By the time they finally get to swim for themselves, it turns out to be incredibly anti-climactic.
These two stories illustrate opposite poles in a serious debate about youth ministry. On the one hand, it sometimes feels like we will lose our youth if we keep making them sit through services they care nothing about. Better to keep the youth ministry an entity all its own, separate from the “big church,” to keep the kids entertained. On the other hand, what happens when youth leave that self-contained “age-appropriate ministry” and move out into the real world? How many will decide that church isn’t for them after they transition from high school to college if they haven’t developed a relationship with what worship looks like on a Sunday morning while growing up?
So where do we put the youth on Sunday morning? In the youth room or in the pews? Are there ways to get the youth involved in the service? Is there another solution?
3) Whose Gonna Lead It?
The stereotypical youth leader is between 23 and 28, has a goatee, and can’t sit still for more than a second and a half. The youth flock to them and their charismatic presence builds a solid program that becomes the pride of a local church.
But of course, such a program can crash and burn the second this young, boundless leader runs out of steam. Or makes a dangerous mistake with boundaries. Or has a falling out with a significant member of the congregation or a parent on the youth committee.
So maybe its better to rely on a team of volunteers to run the youth ministry? A group of committed members of the congregation who are willing to teach Sunday school, lead a time of youth fellowship after the service every week, and take the kids on a trip every once in a while.
Which works great until the stories of infighting start making their way through the church corridors. Or the senior pastor discovers that the name “Jesus” hasn’t been mentioned in youth fellowship in about six weeks because they are too busy playing dodgeball and eating pizza. Or basketball season rolls around and 4 of the 6 parent volunteers can’t help anymore because their kids all have games on Sundays.
So who you gonna call?
4) To Evangelize or to Create a Safe Space?
This question has to do with the goal of a youth ministry.
Youth ministry can be the core of a seeker-friendly church growth plan. Create a fun, laid back environment where tons of kids show up to hang out on a Thursday night, then get them emotionally charged up with some powerful music, then share the gospel and get them “saved.” When they keep coming back week after week, eventually their parents will wonder what’s up, check the church out themselves, and now you’ve added a few dozen families of 8 to your member roles. Church growth dreams accomplished!
On the other hand, you might say, youth today are squeezed like lemons everywhere they go. Between the demands of school, being a star on the soccer team, needing to get a 34 on the ACT and a 2100 on the SAT, applying for college, keeping up a social life, and having to plan their careers by the time they are 16, the last thing these kids need is to come to church and feel pressured into making a lifetime decision about eternity. What they really need is a safe space to relax, let their guard down, and instead of feeling pressured feel loved and accepted for who they are.
So whose right and whose wrong? Which priorities are more important?
5) Theology or Ethics?
This question has to do with the content of what we teach our youth.
There has been a movement lately, especially among Reformed evangelicals, to emphasize the teaching of doctrine. And not just in “big church,” in the youth ministry, too. Youth ministry is seen as an opportunity to shape young minds into vessels for the perfect understanding of God. If we make sure they know all the right answers to all the big questions of theology, we can be sure they will know what is important when they grow up, move away from home, and have to find a church of their own.
Some youth ministers scowl at this kind of thinking, however. Theology seems too heady for most youth, many will simply not understand, give up, and stop coming to church. Or, even worse, join the big, fluffy youth ministry across town. Better to keep things concrete than abstract, better to talk about practical ways kids can live better lives than to give lectures on the atonement.
Is this just a matter of preference or style? Can both be done with integrity or do we have to make a choice?
6) Certainty or Room for Doubt?
This question has to do with the tenor of a youth ministry’s teaching.
Something that terrifies a good many Christian leaders and parents is the rate at which Christian young people leave home and “lose their faith.” Two competing strategies have developed for dealing with this phenomenon in youth ministry:
Option 1: Equip students to be absolutely certain of their faith, ready to fend off the dreaded atheist hordes, and have the solid foundation of a Christian worldview from which to assess every new bit of information they learn in life.
Option 2: Step back, give students the space to ask questions and doubt, and let them make faith decisions for themselves. When their faith is actually their faith, not their parents’ or youth pastor’s faith imposed on them, students are much more likely to stick with it later on.
Which do we choose? And why? Will it work? What are the risks?
7) How Do We Do That at Our Church?
The first thing I ever did in youth ministry was lead worship with the youth band at the church I grew up attending. I learned a lot about what I thought musicianship and worship leading was about by visiting a huge youth ministry at another church in town. When we tried to replicate that at our smaller church, it just never seemed to work out as well…
The last couple of summers, I have worked with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachussetts’ youth ministry planning worship for their summer camp and doing leadership development with high school students. One of the things we talked about there a lot was reproduceability. How do we make what we do at camp– with all the advantages of abundant natural resources, a packed out worship space, and a full-sized rock-band– something that small parishes in the diocese can use at home?
Embedded in this question is an assumption which has emerged from the last few decades of mega-church dominated youth ministry: to do youth ministry well you need a big staff and an even bigger budget. But do you really? How do you do youth ministry without these things?
In part two of this series I will try to sketch out a model that addresses these questions based on my own experience and the thoughts of others.
Let me know what you think. How should youth ministry address these concerns? What does your ideal picture of a youth ministry look like?