I’m deeply concerned about the state of youth ministry nowadays. As adult ministry is trying to mature from providing “goods and services” to the membership and instead being “missional,” I’m not seeing a comparable maturation of our youth ministries.
I mean, ask your youth minister this question: “What is your foremost goal for the kids in your ministry who’ve already become Christians?” You’ll get one of these answers:
- To have great relationships.
- To have a great relationship with Jesus.
- To be spiritually formed like Jesus.
- To be a faithful Christian.
Now, all these are good things, but none is the most important thing, at least not the way the question is normally answered. You see, these are all youth minister jargon and have to be understood as used among the professional clergy (oops, I mean “ministers”).
Hence, “faithful Christian,” at least among the Churches of Christ, means be a regular attender willing to help pass the Lord’s Supper when called on to do so. That’s not good enough.
“Spiritually formed” is great stuff, but usually is a reference to having a devout prayer life, disciplined Bible study, a quiet time with God, that sort of thing–all very good but, again, not good enough.
A “great relationship with Jesus” in youth minister-speak usually means lots of time spent praying. The usual analogy is to have a relationship with Jesus like your boyfriend or girlfriend–and you’d better call them everyday or they’ll think you’ve lost interest. Again, a disciplined prayer life is great, but not good enough.
“Great relationships” is downright vapid. I mean, this is the goal of the social director of the local country club. People need friends and church should be a crucial part of a Christian’s social network, but Jesus didn’t die on the cross so you could have friends. Rather, if you live as Jesus lived, you’ll make friends as Jesus did–with your sleeves rolled up, serving others.
In my own peculiar view, the best possible answer is: “to be devoted disciples of Jesus, willing to die on whatever cross Jesus puts in their lives.” Now, this is not good marketing, and the church growth books don’t talk about dying on a cross so much as having coffee in the foyer. But surely we want our kids to be truly formed like Jesus–not just his prayer life and desire for occasional solitude. Rather, Jesus’ entire life was a journey to the cross. His life was love realized in service to his fellow man–at any price.
But we elders like to see huge crowds on Wednesday night. We want to have zillions of kids on the bus going to the annual beach trip. We want an enormous gaggle of kids sitting together in church. But none of this is worth a thing unless the kids are being transformed into true disciples.
I recently spoke with our campus minister. He’s frustrated because many of the kids he receives from youth programs across the country want to be served, not to serve. They aren’t interested in community service. I observed that Generation Y is supposed to be all about community service. Obviously, we’re training our kids to object to community service while the secular culture is trying to push them into service! Some of our programs are taking kids from a service-oriented secular culture and pushing them into self-indulgence!
I quite honestly don’t know the solution. I don’t know how you get 15-year olds to be the kind of people Jesus calls us to be. I don’t know how you get them serious about the challenges Jesus lays before us. I do know, however, that the first step is to clearly define your goals. And the first goal, surely, is that we want our own children to not only remain Christians after they leave home, but to be different from the world, indeed, to be equipped and motivated to change the world. And this means we can’t sell them on a worldly ministry to get them to come and then try to switch agendas after we’ve set the hook.
Rather, at an age-appropriate level, we’ve got to encourage them to find joy in service. It’s not about vanilla lattes and ultimate Frisbee. It’s about serving your fellowman in a way that shows him Jesus. And if the kids enjoy a latte or play a game while they’re at it, more power to them.