My Concern with Youth Ministry

YouthI’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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Youth Ministry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to My Concern with Youth Ministry

  1. Chris Guin says:

    I suspect that the first step in changing the youth ministry is to jettison some "goals" as being of primary importance. Youth ministries are attractive to parents and families who want their troubled teenagers to have a source of good, wholesome friends and a place to hang out that doesn't involve getting into trouble. People will change churches to be at a place with a "thriving" youth program. Numbers of kids, attractiveness of program, charisma of youth minister, etc are all things that must be emphasized to meet the goals of being attractive to families and having large crowds. To jettison such goals in favor of lives lived in service to God might seem self-destructive, as there's little evidence that kids want to flock to a place that doesn't allow them to be lazy consumers. Yet, seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you – I would classify high attendance and "strong program" as "all these things."

    What does a youth ministry look like that isn't consumer driven? I don't know – maybe brainstorm a little. Fewer devotionals/social gatherings in favor of regular community service (which can also contain devotionals and be social gatherings)? Regular one-on-one meetings between mentor and teen? "Spur nights" (accountability groups geared towards acts of love to others)? Just some ideas to throw out there.

  2. Marcus Brown says:

    Good thoughts. I think your starting point is exactly right, and maybe we need to spend some more time there: We need some more time & work to determine how ADULT, MATURE Christians move from a "goods & service" view of the church to a missional, servant-oriented view of the church and of our own Christian lives on a day to day basis.

    Once we adults figure out how to do it, perhaps we'll have a better idea of what to tell our kids to do. 🙂 (It may be that this is my first reaction because I've been more focused on adult ministry lately.)

    On the other hand, it will probably take less time to convert our young people to a Biblical view of Christianity than it will take to transform our adults – so perhaps it will again be true that "a little child will lead them."

  3. brandon says:

    what a lot of people forget is that kids are kids. we expect them to carry adult maturity, but the problem is that they are 15 years old. it's easy for adults forget what it was like to be a kid. as a grown man, you've heard passages like "you are the light of the world" and "i can do all things through Christ" your whole life; but in many cases a 16 or 17 year old boy is coming across those thoughts for the first time. how can we then expect him to have the wisdom of what it means to carry that light or to access the power of God? and our older members tend to watch our youth (especially in our COC brotherhood) expecting them to make mistakes, and then criticize everyone from the parents to the youth to the elders when kids don't show adult maturity.

    i think marcus brown was right in saying that when our adults get it figured out, we can start passing it on to the kids. but the truth is that the kids are very often the ones who teach us what it means to have the heart of Christ.

    for instance, in the adult Bible class yesterday a lady was telling a story about how she had to teach her teenage son that you can't just stop and give out money to everybody that looks needy. he didn't understand… he thought we were supposed to share the love of Christ with everyone. instead she taught him the finer points of judgment according to appearance (without stating it as such). about 3/4 of our ADULT bible class concluded that you can't just give rides to people who need rides or food to people who act like they're hungry.

  4. Pingback: Youth Ministry: A Needed Course Correction (at last!) « One In