So, Adam Mclane is at it again. He can’t help being provocative. What may surprise you is that I agree with the main thrust of his argument. Allow me to explain.
Adam is absolutely right that if we want to do youth ministry well we need to have a realistic integration strategy at all levels. It’s not only the youth ministries job to be part of the larger whole, it’s also the larger whole’s job to have a space within itself for youth. If we simply try to pull youth ministry into the larger church and make it nice and tidy we haven’t done youth ministry any favors, and we certainly haven’t done the church any favors.
Ministry–to any group of people–is messy. It isn’t about being tidy. It isn’t about making things clear or acceptable. Quite the opposite. It’s about helping others. It’s about, as Adam puts it, helping all the wrong kinds of people. This is what Jesus did and this is what his Body ought to do.
Let me hasten to add that I would actually nuance things quite differently from Adam. I think he sees that the larger church is often not doing the work of helping the wrong kinds of people. At the same time, he sees youth ministries genuinely trying to do that (or, at least, sees that as the historical purpose of youth ministry). His solution is that maybe youth ministry needs left alone to do its thing. He’s wrong there. The solution is to alter our churches–which includes radically altering our youth ministries–if we’re to reach people. As I’ve pointed out time and again, our youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of reaching people, at least on the whole. We’ve certainly gotten the wrong type of people into the church building, but they are quick to leave it as soon as they graduate high school.
This is why on the one hand youth ministry cannot continue as it has for the past thirty or more years. We have to change. At the same time, becoming a sanitized part of the family ministry isn’t the right answer either. Adam is right, if we’re just doing family retreats, and everything is about family, then how are we going to minister to youth without traditional families (obviously, children with only one parent come to mind, but what about first generation immigrant children, whose idea of family is much larger than our own idea of nuclear family)? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing a family retreat, but we have to full process our strategies.
No, the answer–I think–is to fully integrate the entire church. We will always need a youth ministry that reaches students where they are at. But our youth ministry also needs to disciple students, and part of that means introducing them to the larger church. This introduction can’t be the out hanger in our ministries either. Arguably, introducing someone to Jesus involves introducing them to his people here on earth, and that includes more than just adolescents playing games and hearing an inspirational devotion. Our students need a fully integrated youth ministry that helps them know they are part of a huge family that cares and loves them, and our churches need to be fully integrated so that students can help them to realize that ministry isn’t tidy and it isn’t easy.