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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