Is rethinking youth ministry worth it?

There seems to be a trend among youth pastors to admit that something in the way we’re doing youth ministry isn’t working. Statistics (and, of course, statistics can be made to say anything) reveal that even students heavily involved in a youth ministry leave the church when they leave high school. This has lead to a movement towards rethinking and redefining how we do youth ministry. Some of this can be traced, I believe, to a rethinking of the way church in general is done that began–perhaps–with Robert Webber, but has certainly been carried on by a variety of people.

Tony Jones wrote Postmodern Youth Ministry, and he began my thoughts in a direction that involved more student discussion, and less of me telling students what to believe. That has recently been followed up with my own wanderings in the youth ministry blogosphere. I’ve enjoyed much of what Brian and Jacob at Rethinking Youth Ministry have wrote about. Last fall I read, one might even say “devoured,” Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli. Overall I’ve been out of the “mainstream” of youth ministry thought for about three years now, and books like Contemplative Youth Ministry only serve to reinforce my thinking. But, as I mentioned in a post earlier this week, I am sometimes left wondering if the whole process of rethinking youth ministry is worth it.

As youth pastors we are constantly bombarded with the message that in order to be successful we are supposed to have a youth ministry that is growing numerically, producing Christian students who want to pray at a flag pole and get their friends saved. Our picture of a “good” youth event is often one of students laughing, having fun, and jumping to whatever the latest, hottest Christian band is. Yet, when one tries to rethink youth ministry, one naturally looks away from these stereotypes. Contemplative Youth Ministry espouses a more reflective kind of ministry. To be sure, we’ll still play games, hang out at the mall, and otherwise have fun with students. But the success of an event won’t be measured in the laughter or sweat that is produced by said event.

In this process of rethinking youth ministry the idea is that we help students to realize what the Christian life is all about. We look not to exciting programs and large youth ministries, but instead to Jesus. We try to make love the center of our ministry instead of some guy yaking, or a particular point of doctrine, or getting people saved. I believe fully that these things need to happen. We need to encourage our students to develop disciplines, to realize that life and by proxy youth ministry isn’t all about fun and games, that they need to love others as Jesus has, that they can encounter God in silence, and a host of other things. Certainly, traditional youth ministry wouldn’t deny these things in word–but perhaps it does in deed, or if not it doesn’t focus on them.

At times I look around, and I wonder if I should just give up on rethinking, or reculturing, or whatever “re” we’re using at the moment. Perhaps I should just go back to the way it’s been done before. I mean, let’s be honest, I managed to come out of youth ministry and I haven’t lost my faith. I daresay many of us who want to rethink youth ministry were involved in youth ministries as teens. Sure, some students fall away; people have always fallen away from the faith. It is difficult. Sometimes I even begin wondering if rethinking youth ministry is just a way for us to keep our jobs, keep the things we like doing, keep the culture of youth ministry around, though with some changes, so that it will continue to survive.

Add to all of this the fact that my rethinking of youth ministry goes further than most. I love the Hebrew Bible. I think that we should teach it to students, and that we should encourage students to learn from it their story as God’s people. Beyond that I think Biblical scholarship has much to offer. I think we need to expect students to interact, at least to some extent on the receiving end, with that scholarship. I want to teach students Hebrew and Greek! I’m tired of people telling me, “that’s too in depth for teens,” or, “Students won’t be interested in that, you’ll lose them. I’m an adult and I don’t even care!” So, all of that to say that I’m pretty far out even among those of us who want to rethink youth ministry.

This post has been a bit of a ramble, and I’m afraid that it will have to remain that way. I had wanted to end it by saying that, indeed, rethinking youth ministry is worth it. But that seems a bit too simple. Beyond that, although I want to believe that it is worthwhile, and I think I might believe it, I’m not sure yet. What I will say is this: when it becomes discouraging to be in youth ministry, odd things sometimes happen. I just had a student IM me. She wanted to explain that she doesn’t answer a lot in our gatherings because she doesn’t know the Bible well (of course, neither does anyone else, but that’s besides the point). I told her that was fine, we were happy to have her there, and she need not fear not knowing the Bible well. I then encouraged her to try answering at some point, even if she’s not sure she’s “right.” Maybe this is an opportunity to help someone…or maybe not. So, in the end I’m still not 100% sure that rethinking youth ministry is worth it, but impacting students and helping them to love Jesus certainly is.

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4 thoughts on “Is rethinking youth ministry worth it?

  1. Mm… good thoughts, all of them. I think you’re right, in that somewhere, there’s a disconnect between what we’re doing, and our goal in youth ministry. Sometimes, the whole thing just feels like baby-sitting… “Entertain my kid, feed them some cliches about God, feed them some pizza, and send ’em home.” … and in the end, they’re still desperately lacking depth.

    Rethinking youth ministry is important… but I think like you began to allude to, it has to be a small element in the bigger picture of rethinking the institutional church. Because if we’re honest, that’s not exactly working either for a lot of people… for a lot of churches. We’re missing the point, and its so evident.

    Great thoughts, indeed… You reinforced what I’ve thought for a long time, that maybe its not just us struggling through the murky waters of what we ought to be doing in youth ministry. We’re not alone. Thank you….

  2. First, let me say that I love the fact that you do not view Hebrew and Greek as too far above your teens’ heads. If we want to teach them Scripture, we should teach them the original. Kudos.

    I do agree with you that rethinking has become almost the latest fad in Youth Ministry. I feel that the goal of all of our ministries should be to teach Biblical literacy, living a life pleasing to God, and training them to impact the world NOW for Christ, rather than retreating into a holy huddle and waiting for Heaven to come. The methods and modes should not matter so long as they serve the purposes of our ministries.

    And I am glad that your conclusion is not concrete. It’s too broad of a topic to address in a single post… or a single day, week or year for that matter. The process of evaluating ministry SHOULD be ongoing. We have forgotten that, I think…

  3. I was just about to suggest reading ReThink by Steve Wright when lo and behold, somebody beat me to it!

    Seriously, though. The question shouldn’t be: What is the most effective model in reaching youth? The question should be: What is the most Biblical and therefore most God-glorifying model to reach youth?

    You’re right when you say that inevitably some youth are going to fall away and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, what if we can minimize the damage done by improving the way we do things? Furthermore, by not giving a teenager the mentoring and teaching they need (instead, focusing on numbers and glitz) many of them graduate from God when the graduate from high school, but they don’t even know it! I at least think it should be made clear to them their salvation either never happened or was never developed so they know where they stand.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s wise to stop reevaluating our position as Youth Pastors. We are sinners and we need to continually reform what we’re doing. Maybe instead of treating each youth ministry book you read as a seperate model, try taking the common Biblical elements of each book and letting the Spirit lead you to form a model that is specific to your ministry.

    Also, I tend to read a few books on a subject, then just focus on one MAYBE two to follow up on and to share to fellow ministers. In my opinion it is better to read the best book in the field then a bunch of mediocre books. And I think Wright’s book is close to being the best in youth ministry. Here’s my review:

    http://pastordefalco.wordpress.com/2008/04/30/rethink-youth-ministry-is-student-ministry-working-decide-for-yourself/

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