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?

 

Illegitimacy: A far bigger “fiscal cliff”


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Soon, we are told, we will go over the “fiscal cliff.” When it happens our politicians and corporations will make a beeline to our tv screens and exhort us to do our part: spend money.

No one is talking about it, but we have a much bigger drag on our economy than the fiscal cliff. It drags our nation down every minute of every day. It is children born out of wedlock, what used to be known as “illegitimacy.” 42% of American children are now born out of wedlock. Why is this a problem? Because, generally speaking, 3/4 of children born OUT OF wedlock are born INTO poverty.

I have spent 30 years in youth ministry. Largely this amounts to being a friend and a mentor…sort of an uncle to young people during their critical adolescent period. What I have seen time and time again is that to successfully make the jump to adulthood means making just a few big decisions right. With those few big decisions, people generally end up in a pretty good place. You don’t have to be anywhere close to a perfect person, but for life to go fairly well for most of us, meant three choices:

  1. Don’t do anything in which the worst thing that could happen is for you to like it. (ie. addiction)
  2. Get an education (in something that will get you a  decent paying job)
  3. Get married.

In the absence of someone else to pay the bills, if you don’t make the Big Three major decisions in order, life gets very difficult, very quickly. 

You might ask, “Where is faith in this equation?” Faith is the fourth predictor. My son is in Student Council at a Title IV high school. Of the students whose homes kids go to for events, it is the 1/3 who are church members whose homes are invariably used. That is because they tend to be the ones at the school with homes large enough to use. Their faith gave them a moral framework and supportive relationships to make the Big Three! For me, the Big Three decisions are 2nd, 3rd, and home plate. First base is faith. In baseball if you don’t get on first base nothing else really matters. Yes, someone can have a decent life in the here and now without faith because, as Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) People can engage the faith decision anywhere around the Big Three and end up fine. But without the Big Three young people send themselves into poverty and set up their children to continue that dangerous cycle.

We have to help young people know the consequences of their life life choices. Here is a web link to a NJ news article that describes the connection between poverty and out-of-wedlock childbearing: (http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2012/11/qa_why_marriage_may_be_the_str.html) It is controversial if you are a progressive, but in my experience, spot on. Helping young people with the other big decision, education, is controversial if you are a conservative and want to cut funding for public education. Isn’t it time we put our young people ahead of our politics?

Amare Stoudemire used to have a non-profit called, “Each one. Teach one.” I have no idea what that organization did. But the idea is right. If every person who reads this blog forwards it to your fb friend list and every one of us mentor one young person of poverty, from today until the day they graduate from college…we will have done far more to help our nation’s future than anything else in our power. So forward this to your friends and then become a Big Brother/Big Sister, a Young Life leader, join Mentor Kids USA or become a volunteer in your church’s youth ministry…find a way to longitudinally follow a young person as a wise aunt or uncle.

It will matter to them. It will change you. And the nation you save may be your own.

Won’t you join me and find a young person to share your life and wisdom with?