For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3.27-28
Let’s be honest, as books like Almost Christian point out: youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of nurturing the faith of youth. We have, perhaps, done an excellent job of entertaining them, of sometimes keeping them away from drugs and alcohol, and perhaps of helping them connect to one another. But we certainly haven’t nurtured faith–at least as a generalization.
So, it should come as no surprise that Family-Based ministry is somewhat of a buzz word at the moment. In youth ministry circles we’ve come to realize that parents aren’t the enemy, but a vital ally as we try to help students own their faith. We’ve also begun to realize that parents have their own pains and issues that need the love of Jesus. Even so, we still separate our students into their own ghetto with little or no interaction with the greater church.
Let me be quick to add that I think the current call from some corners to abolish youth ministry as we know it is sensationalist and mis-directed. Adolescence is a distinct developmental phase, and we need to address it in the church. Burying our heads in the sand is probably the worst thing we could do. However, we do need to take seriously the idea that we need to assess our current methods of doing ministry.
The more I think about the way we do youth ministry traditionally, with students segregated into their own section of the church for any number of things, the more I have theological issues with that strategy. What may surprise you is that I don’t have theological issues with this method of ministry based on some idea that the parents need to be primarily responsible for the faith development of their children (though parents ought to be primarily responsible). After all, the village has always been involved with rearing the young, at least until the advent of our modern, disjointed society.
No, my theological concern is that by segregating our students into their own ghetto we implicitly teach them that everyone in the Church is just like them…a teenager. With this implicit message is it any wonder that when students are no longer teenagers they also tend to no longer be Christians? We’ve spent the previous seven or so years of their lives teaching them exactly that. I worry that our implicit message may run even deeper, teaching them that everyone in the Church is just like them not only in relation to age, but also in terms of ethnicity, culture (or sub-culture), musical preferences, etc. To be sure, some youth ministries are more diverse in these areas than others which may mitigate some of my concern. But it is easy to see throughout church history that Christians have commonly struggled with the inclusive nature of Jesus’ call to spread the gospel. Peter had to convince the Jerusalem church, after all, to accept God’s movement among the gentiles (cf., Acts 10-11).
If we are going to be serious about sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God with students, we also need to be serious about helping our students understand that the Church is a diverse body of people which contains many who are not like them. We need to help teenagers understand that adults struggle, love, hate, cry, laugh, work at developing Christian practices, find prayer difficult and have difficulty loving their neighbors just like they do.
We need to realize that having students separated into “age appropriate groups” with no interaction among the other members of the Body isn’t just a bad idea, it’s bad theology.