Is it time to dump youth ministry?

448092409_640Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

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?

 

About these ads

David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation.

You-Lost-Me1-662x1024Snark MeterrealMID.003

(A letter to youth pastors, senior pastors, parents, and church boards)

David Kinnaman is really smart. He writes good books too. However, I question the title and premise of his book, You Lost Me. Did the church “lose” our young adults, as Dr. Kinnaman asserts, by being fearful, anti-science, controlling and hostile? I would like to suggest an alternate theory:  The church didn’t “lose” the millennials at all. They were simply never actually in church to begin with.

At this point it is axiomatic that millennials are in an unprecedented exodus from the church.* Books are being published, “You Lost Me” conferences held, and churches are going to great lengths to address the issue of young adults distancing themselves from evangelicalism.[1] These efforts usually result in passionate appeals for market-driven changes to the practice and theology of the church. There is a danger here: If we start where Dr. Kinnaman does, with what young adults say without first examining the context that led them there, we will only perpetuate our problem.

How Did We Get Here?

Young adults in Barna’s qualitative studies have compelling stories to tell about the church being fearful, controlling, anti-science, and mean to the LGBT community. Surely those stories need to be listened to. But when we stop and ask ourselves, “What was the last ministry those millennials were a part of?” For most, the answer is the youth ministry. And when we consider that the 15-year-old youth group member of a decade ago is the 25 year-old non-attender of today, a question starts to form:  Did something happen in the youth room that might have caused this?  Follow my line of thought through the dots of what we did in our youth rooms and see if the millennial abandonment doesn’t seem a natural, if unintended consequence…

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time

tumblr_lvfmugA0uF1qi39uwo1_500

In the 80’s and 90’s, while mainline churches disinvested in young people, evangelicals began imitating successful parachurch ministries to “attract” students with games and activities. But what the parachurch did in neighborhood living rooms with careful evangelistic purpose was a bit less purposeful (even if “Purpose Driven”) in most church youth rooms. Regardless, evangelism was in. Rigorous discipleship was out.

As we moved into the 2000’s, bands, fog machines and light shows became the youth room rage. Tim Elmore dubbed today’s young adults, “the overindulged generation.”[2] The church gladly played along, “wowing” them students with noise, technology and millions of pizzas. Students were segregated away from the grownups on Sunday morning in a new idea: the “youth service.” The model of removing youth from the sanctuary, was dubbed early on “The One-eared Mickey Mouse.[3] The youth service essentially turned the “student ministry” into a parachurch ministry on the church property – perhaps Christ-centered in its message and developmentally appropriate, but segregating youth from the larger faith community in order to do programs “attractive” to students.

Segregation: The Drug Of Choice

images-1

The entire church embraced this paradigm shift. It was the drug everyone wanted: Parents wanted their kids to like church. Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth Pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band and shorter message. On top of that, donors were excited to write large checks to build expensive facilities with the promise of reaching lost and hurting kids. And if our metrics are seats filled and satisfaction surveys, it looked like it was working. But what are the long-term effects of segregated, program-driven student ministry?

Many students graduate from high school…without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church.

In the new model, students develop the crucial affiliation bond not with the church or its leadership, but to the youth pastor and youth program. Because youth pastors have high turnover, new youth pastors have to continually “win” over the last youth pastor’s group. Students get used to being “won” and begin to expect adults to cater to their desires and preferences. The One-Eared Mickey Mouse, led by entrepreneurs with little theological training, becomes what the market demands: the great show kids desire and the teaching parents require: just enough “God” to motivate kids to avoid risky behaviors like drugs and sex.[4] Because youth pastors are generally people of spiritual passion and commitment, many students graduate from high school having had a real experience of spiritual transformation but without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church. In this model, older adults no longer have a role in the formation of the young, parents, who have outsourced their children’s spiritual formation, often oppose a rigorous transformational faith, and the young have no interest in taking their place in the concerns and councils of the church…so students graduate from the youth group into the next thing that will cater to their preferenceslike the local Starbucks.

An Assembly Line To Build the Self-absorbed

1926-ford-model-t-assembly-line

In fairness, this didn’t start in the youth room. The church shuttles our young down an assembly line from the nursery to the children’s rooms, then to the junior high room, then the high school “youth service.” Then we graduate them to college groups. No one seems to notice that nowhere in that system did we bother to connect our young people to the church at all. 

We have treated students as a market to be pandered to in order to fill youth rooms. And, now that it is time for young adults to take their place in extending the Kingdom of God through the life of the Church, they are, as one would expect, wondering what we are going to do next to woo them. Should we be surprised that they are failing to become mature Christians, participating and leading in the body of Christ? Rather than “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” we have infantilized them. [5]

How did we not see this coming? How did we fail to connect the dots? Instead of connecting them to God and his church, we, with Pavlovian discipline, conditioned our young to jump from church to church as consumers of glitzy religio-entertainment. We systematically taught those with the most to give how to take and take and take.

Are there other factors? Of course there are. For one, parents have largely stopped passing on the faith in the home. For another, the evangelical church has lowered its ecclesiology to something akin to “we exist to be entertain you.” However, right between those two polarities stands a ministry that could bridge the gap: the youth ministry. How? To start with we can drop the misshapen narrative – the narrative that we “lost them” by giving the young too rigorous a theology and by being hostile and negative. Although problematic, fear, negativity, and rigor simply do not tell the whole story at thousands of churches. And trying to un-lose a generation by again pandering to whatever the latest market research says millennials want to hear is not only to fail to be faithful stewards of both the Gospel and them, it is to repeat yesterday’s mistakes.

What now?

The exodus of young adults from the church is a reality caused, not primarily by cultural change or negative message, but by ill-advised leadership decisions by youth pastors, senior pastors, parents and church boards. We did this to ourselves by investing in segregationist youth ministries that proved ultimately unhelpful. What we can do in response? We can repent of where we failed them in their youth rather than by again pandering to where we have left them as young adults.

Then, Youth pastors, pastors, parents and board members, lets put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Reclaim rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church. Challenge and equip parents to spiritually lead in their homes. Re-invision youth ministry as youth who DO ministry, pursuing and extending the faith connected to the entirety of the community of faith, the church.

Together lets make sure the next generation of young people does not leave the church when they leave our youth rooms.

*A followup post by a Millennial: How do millennials experience your church?

Continue reading

Whatever Happened to Sin? The Message in Today’s Youth Ministry.

There is a lot of conversation floating around the youth ministry world these days around the topic, “What is our message?” More particularly, “What do we say about sin?”

Is our Gospel a negative message? “You are a dirty wicked sinner and better get saved from the hell you deserve!” Or a more positive Good News? “You really are a nice person. God loves you and all the other nice people-who would be even nicer if they only knew the niceness of God.”

Actually, in most circles we don’t much hear the clichéd negative message anymore. If there is a motto in youth ministry today it might be, “Lower the bar.” Make it simpler, more approachable, less scary, less commitment…less message. “Less is more”, seems to be in the water of youth ministry.

What do I think the message ought to be?

Having done rural, suburban and urban youth ministry, with rich, poor and middle class kids of virtually every ethnicity, it is obvious that context matters as to what needs to be emphasized in our message. Urban kids involved in the underbelly of our culture know that they are sinners. As a group they tend not to believe that God could possibly love them, given the things they have done. On the other hand, suburban kids, who have been told that everyone deserves a participant medal and are steeped in the philosophy that God is really lucky to have them on His team, those kids could use a good message of “you aren’t really all that.” Don’t we in youth ministry tend to give students the message they most expect but least need to hear?

Youth pastors tend to fall into two camps: those feeling the compulsive need to convert people, and those apathetically giving up on Jesus’ call to invite those outside the faith into discipleship. How can we be faithful without being compulsive? Overall, I like it when we proclaim a message of positive realism.

Positive realism really is the Christian story. There is a reality to brokenness that is undeniable. But there is a positiveness to what God wants to do in the world in us and through us. One can be patient with people if we actually believe the Christian narrative: God made us for himself, and, although we have wandering hearts, God is wooing us back and taking possession of that which was always his. Jesus died for our beauty not just our brokenness, and God is now calling us to a role in his transforming work and, in the end, it will all turn out for Good.

That is a message to take to the streets, my peeps!