Is it time to dump youth ministry?

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Part of “You don’t seriously think…” a format for answering reader’s questions.

Brian commented with a critique of youth ministry made popular by Philip LeClerc and his movie “Divided.” I should say from the outset that Brian is not a reactionary. He is a thoughtful and articulate man in training for the pastorate who is passionate about creating lifelong Christians. I chose his critique specifically because it is a good example of the questions youth ministers increasingly have to answer about our purpose and practices…

Brian writes, “I appreciated your article, (“Cool Church“) but the big elephant in the room has not been addressed. Can we find anything in SCRIPTURE that supports YOUTH MINISTRY and YOUTH PASTORS? I know it is a big money-making business (Youth Curriculum etc), but when did this age segregation start? How did the puritans and reformers “do” church? It may surprise many of your readers that G. Stanley Hall and Darwin were the apostles of youth ministry. What ever happened to following the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul? Youth ministry? Maybe we should look at it again through the lens of Scripture.”

Hi Brian,

Yes, I have heard the argument that it is time to dump youth ministry. I would like to start with the financial motive critique: You do realize that someone is making a pretty good living pitching the idea that youth ministry is unbiblical, don’t you? I have never met a youth minister who can afford to make a movie, but I have known more than a few who became senior pastors as much to feed their families as out of a sense of divine call. No youth pastors are featured on “The Preachers of L.A.

Regular readers of The Gospel Side know that I am a vocal (some say rabid) critic of many common youth ministry practices. Often youth ministers have been trained in and uncritically embrace ministry models that create significant long-term problems when their students reach adulthood. That being said, what Jesus and the disciples were doing is exactly what youth ministry should do: A grouping of teen-agers with their mentor doing life together…hanging out around the fire discussing God, asking dumb questions, and being stirred with the ridiculous idea that God wants to use them to change the world. The twelve got three years of life-on-life youth ministry, also known as “discipleship.”

“what Jesus and the disciples were doing is exactly what youth ministry should do: A grouping of teen-agers with their mentor doing life together…hanging out around the fire discussing God, asking dumb questions, and being stirred with the ridiculous idea that God wants to use them to change the world.”

LeClerc’s assertion that the “G. Stanley Hall and Charles Darwin were the apostles of youth ministry” is just plain wrong. They weren’t. Jesus Christ himself hand-picked twelve young men to turn his work over to when he was gone. That model was imitated by Barnabas with Paul. And then by Paul with Timothy. They did have a higher bar than much of today’s youth ministry: Jesus’ idea of youth ministry was youth who DO ministry. He entered their world, then brought them along with him into his. He took them along on his significant moments – the transfiguration comes to mind. He taught them how to pray and expected them to stay awake and pray with him while he prayed. He sent them out on preaching and healing tours.

None of this is to say that youth ministry is without its problems. Much youth ministry is alarmingly aligned with our culture. Too many youth leaders seem overly concerned with being “cool.” Too many come across as fearful of rejection and terrified of growing up. And when we are driven by fears, we avoid inconvenient truth and fail to challenge students, producing malformed disciples. Youth ministry faces other problems as well: lack of integration with the larger church, truncated teaching of the Scriptures, weak modeling of prayer and serving and evangelism. Often we see students having very little sense of being part of the community – of being a member of Christ’s body engaged in God’s mission. All to often appear to view students as discrete receivers of individual salvation: A number to be counted, not for their benefit but to self-validate the leader’s ministries. But none of that means that we should leave young people unled.

So is youth ministry Scriptural? It is true we don’t have a job titled “youth minister.” But we don’t have one titled “music minister” either. No one is advocating we get rid of them. We don’t find “custodian” either, but none of us wants our church’s potties a mess. For that matter, they didn’t have toilets in the NT. Maybe we should save a few bucks on plumbing? Sorry to be snarky, but when we only do what Scripture explicitly states, we run into some real limitations.

In summary, the idea that youth ministry is unbiblical just does not hold water. Is it time to dump youth ministry? No way. Is it time to re-envision it? Absolutely. I am an irritating critic of the youth ministry status quo. But I really, with all that is within me, want people equipping parents, evangelizing the young, discipling students, and building the next generation of Christian leaders.

Don’t you?

 

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12 thoughts on “Is it time to dump youth ministry?

  1. Sigh. I get so tired of the “show me the Scriptural authority for” arguments. Arguing from absence is poor logic. And, I would contend, poor theology. Jesus taught in the manner that worked within the context of his time and place. Paul went to the Areopagus because that’s where the people were. We deal with teens differently than they did a hundred years ago because teens are living different lives than they did a hundred years ago. It’s just posturing to make these claims.

    Like you Matt I have serious reservations about the way we’ve been doing youth ministry. I’m working to make the changes in the area where I have some influence. One step at a time. But saying it’s time to get rid of youth ministry altogether because there’s “no scriptural basis” for it is every bit as foolish as continuing to do what “we’ve always done”.

    • Hi Jay,
      I feel you. The group advocating this are Reformed people making a leap from “the regulative principle of worship,” to all of the church. They see the cultural selling out of the megachurch using the “normative principle”…that we Anglicans gave the church, oddly enough, without the balance of Hooker’s S,T, and R as a method for balancing the evangelical impulse or an ethos of catholicity.

      It is really a reaction against reductionistic pragmatism. I cannot blame the discomfort, we just both disagree with the over-reaction. We don’t an anti-youth ministry over-reaction to the turnstile church segregationist over-reaction, do we?

  2. If we follow the rabbit hole a little farther, we find things like concordances, commentaries, bible study materials/devotionals, translation of the Bible (sorry KJV), women’s retreats, summer church camps, short-term mission trips, etc. are all unbiblical by the definition of absence. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • Hi Heather,
      You are a prophet. I have a post sitting in the queue entitled, “Of babies and bathwater.” There are certainly limitations to “the regulative principle.” I had better dust off my Greek New Testament!

      Blessings.
      Matt

  3. I think it is unfair to set a straw man and then shoot it down. Of course we have music ministers and custodians, but just because we have them does not necessarily mean it is right. Some of your responders sound like they are making a mockery out of reasoning from Scripture. I do believe that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture..”
    I think that the men of the reformation, the puritans, and the further reformation were serious about Sola Scriptura. Many risked their lives, their families and their homelands in an effort to reformed the Church based on Scripture. We are not honoring their sacrifices by stating things like, “Show me the Scripture authority for..” Martin Luther asked the church at Rome to show him Scriptural proof of indulgences. I probably can’t understand your responders disdain for history or the sufficiency of Scripture; I probably can’t reason as well has your readers; I will probably come in last if I went wit-for-wit against any of them, but I feel most comfortable verbally sparing with those who want to seek the Scriptures to find solutions for problems concerning church. What is so wrong with Fathers stepping up and saying, “NO, Mr. Youth Pastor, I am going to disciple my own children because God is holding me Biblically responsible for shepherding my own family. I just happened to think that putting people in similar age groups all the time my be counter-productive in the process of family discipleship. I am not arguing from absence, but from what is in the text… Timothy was discipled by his family BEFORE Paul came along. He was not a boy but a man. The Disciples were not boys… but men. They were not 10, 11, or 12. Jesus did not have a youth group, this were a group of men. Can we really compare what we do in Youth Group to what Jesus and Paul did? This seems like another straw man. But I might be wrong, I just rather be wrong in the way that interpret Scripture instead of being wrong because I dismissed it altogether.

    • Hi Brian,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment!

      I suspect that you and I agree much more than you think we do. I would never advocate for a segregationist approach to ministry. I use the term specifically to cause youth ministry people to cringe so that they will investigate their practices.

      You may be lumping everyone who reads and comments together here: We tend to have four groups of readers here: One group are Reformed and Arminian with a very high view of Scripture (both sides are surprised at this, but you tend to have similar high views of Scripture). Another group are catholic (both Roman and some Episcopalians) with a very high view of history. A third group are modernists (both evangelicals and liberals-who really have much more than you would imagine in common). The fourth group are non-Christians who tag in when I say things critical of organized Christianity. It helps to realize that you are talking to all four when you are here. It is a really diverse place this internet!

      I join you in having a high view of the Scriptures. I have toyed with a post on the regulative principle/the normative principle and the theological method of Scripture, tradition and reason as a balance to them-as both have dangers when taken to their logical conclusions…I have that view because I also have a high view of tradition.

      So back to your comments: I would recommend not getting hung up in the titles, but in what is occurring. If youth ministry is “hide kids from the church” then, you are right, it IS absolutely unbibilical.

      If youth ministry is “equip parents”, “disciple young people”, “train them in the word”, “teach them how to proclaim Christ & serve the world” then youth ministry is precisely biblical.

      It isn’t the job title or lack thereof that makes one “biblical” any more than the job title of “pastor” makes one a biblical pastor (certain television preachers with rakishly perfect Christian hair come to mind).

      Again, no one is advocating against spiritual formation in the home (Deutoronomy 6 style). A third place of formation that you do not mention occurred in rabbinical schools (attended by Paul and, most certainly, by Jesus). Most Bible scholars disagree with you though and think that the disciples were young men. They were working in the family business. Outside of Peter, they appear to have been unmarried. They are free from encumbrances enough to go off on a 3 year walk-about rabbinical school-which was what Jesus was offering them. It is why they dropped everything. The master had chosen them.

      It actually seems to me that you are setting up the straw man: Youth group as some sort of 40 hour a week entity that takes kids from their homes. I am talking about kids worshipping with families in the church and in their homes. While having people in the church who can train young adults as missionaries to go into the world of students…onto campus’ as coaches and teachers and student council aids. Armies of adult Christian friends building friendships and earning the right to be heard in order to share Christ and bring them to faith and back to our churches. People who would disciple our young people and teach them the Bible. Does every young person in your church have a godly father? I know that in our urban context most young men have no healthy, safe adult male in their life period. Let alone Christian man. If we only disciple those with godly fathers we condemn a generation to a Christ-less poverty of soul and, most likely, economics.

      Every Christian is called to be a minister in their home and church and a missionary to the world (Acts 1:8) Youth pastors are to be recruiters and trainers of that army!

  4. For the record, I am against the removal of toilets from church buildings, and wholly for some toilet renovation and updating, say, every 40 years or so. There is scriptural backing for this…”Behold, I make all things new.” “All things” should certainly cover the potty. And mauve carpeting.

  5. show me the scripture? … I immediately think about that beautiful part where Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

    There… I showed you the scripture. One of the most beautiful parts of it. (so beautiful in fact there are even songs about it)

    Blessings for your road ahead with this important task.

  6. Show me the scripture??? … I immediately think of that beautiful part where Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

    There… I showed you the scripture… ;-) One of the most beautiful ones…

    Blessings for this road ahead of you (with such an important task)

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