A response to Kate Murphy and Episcopal Café.
The average Episcopal Church has a Sunday worship attendance of 64 people. With congregations that tiny, money is certainly a challenge. How can we maximize our meager resources for mission? Well, the most expensive line item in most church budgets is clergy. Our normative form of worship since the 1979 prayer book is the Eucharist, and that necessitates a priest. A bargain basement full-time priest, with medical, retirement, office expenses & mission share, costs a church in the neighborhood of $80,000 per year. Think about the opportunity that presents: We can solve our financial limitations today! All we have to do is fire those expensive clergy. We could generate more than half a billion dollars per year for the work of the kingdom with this one simple solution! And besides being expensive, paid clergy are unscriptural. And let’s be honest, many clergy follow outdated ministry models that have been statistically proven to harm future attendance. What we need is to dump all of these clergy – they are millstones sinking our church’s future. It is time to ask the hard question: “Are priests killing the church?”
Ridiculous? Obviously. We would never leave adults without a dedicated leader except in dire circumstance. And when that does happen expectations are lowered in a hurry. Not that a church cannot do better without clergy than with an ineffective clergy, we all know those exceptions. We also know that unled things don’t do well. Why then would we make that case for youth ministry?
Yet, this is precisely the theory making the rounds: that “youth ministry is killing the church.” According to the argument, youth ministry is expensive, unscriptural and unhelpful. This reappeared recently on Episcopal Café (goo.gl/TN9Q1A) in the form of a three-year old Christian Century post by Kate Murphy (goo.gl/9sJP0l). In defense of pastor Murphy’s article, I agree with the substance of it: segregating youth is a bad idea. I even have made the case that there might be data that seems to indicate that Rev. Murphy is right (goo.gl/gzXI5g). What I do not agree with the title of the article and the direction that conversation inevitably leads: “If age appropriate ghettoizing is bad, then ALL age appropriate grouping is bad, therefore we do not need to budget sacrificially for staff expertise to pass on the faith to young people.”
Lets take a look at the three common objections to youth ministry:
First, “a youth minister is expensive.” Yes. A youth minister is expensive. The issue, though, isn’t how much a youth minister costs, but do they present a good return on the church’s investment? Here is a case: I have a friend who made $85,000 a year as a youth pastor. Does that seem shockingly large? It might help to know that he built a program in his new church plant that started with him knocking on several thousand doors before their first service to 425 students per week. His big salary equated to $200 per year, per student. Compare that to a clergy salary of $60,000 per annum as the staff person for 150 parishioners (I am told the common church staffing pattern is a staff person for every 150-200 people in attendance). That means the average clergy person in the upper limit/most financially efficient scenario still has annual cost of $400 per parishioner. My friend cost 1/2 as much as an effective clergy. He was a bargain! Is your youth director giving a good return for the investment? Over time is the youth director growing the number of youth and the spiritual depth of the youth involved? That may sound mercenary, but it is a question that every organization, including the church, has to ask about every staff person.
The second argument is making the rounds in conservative circles: “youth ministry is unscriptural” (goo.gl/zgQVR5). This one is a bit of a face-palm. What Jesus did with the disciples was exactly what good youth ministry is supposed to do: A group of teen-agers with a 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.” The argument that a ministry involving large groups, small groups, and leadership development is without biblical precedence is, well, goofy.
The third argument is that youth ministry is “unhelpful” because segregating students from the adults drives them outside the church as grown ups. I make that argument myself in more than one blog post (see below). Segregation does not just fail to help students build an affiliation with the church, it also fails to give them a sense of being a member of Christ’s body engaged in God’s mission. But why stop with segregation, the status quo in youth ministry has many other issues: It is often alarmingly aligned with our culture. It often appears as if students are numbers to validate the leader’s ministry. Too often we truncate the Scriptures. Too often we are weak in our modeling of prayer, service to the world and evangelism. But none of that means that we should leave our young people unled. The answer to doing the wrong thing in the church is not to do nothing. It is to do the right thing. The idea that ineffective youth ministry models and ineffective youth ministers are a reason to eliminate youth ministry is akin to suggesting that because some priests are ineffective and follow ineffective ministry models we should eliminate priests.
The answer to doing ‘bad’ ministry with a group is not to do NO ministry with that group.
It is the idea that youth ministry should be “dumped” that is “unhelpful.” What might actually be helpful would be to note that none of the 100 fastest growing churches are contemplating getting rid of paid youth ministers or age-appropriate youth ministry (goo.gl/XPkH55). I understand financial realities in small churches. I lead a church plant. But to say that our children are not a staffing priority at the time in life when 8 out of 10 who make a decision to follow Christ are doing so is to hand them an invitation to the church down the street that will prioritize evangelism and discipleship to them (goo.gl/Tmofjt). Is it time to dump youth ministry? No way. Is it time to re-envision it? Absolutely. I may be a loud 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.
The Rev. Matt Marino, Canon for Youth and Young Adults, Diocese of Arizona
Posts exploring a better way to do youth ministry…
–Tickled! (An article in The Living Church Magazine, Sept. 2013)
 Assuming the 6667 parishes and missions who filed 2012 parochial reports at $80,000 per church = $533,360,000