For those who have followed this blog for years or who know me personally, it comes as no surprise that I’m always thinking. Whether I’m pondering the wonders of the latest Brandon Sanderson novel or reflecting on some aspect of theology or parsing Hebrew verbs or considering some aspect of youth ministry I’m constantly thinking. It’s the last one in that list that I’ve been processing over the past couple of months. In my role as a youth pastor I have occasion to discuss youth ministry with folks from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives: parents, other staff, youth leaders, teens, other youth pastors and ministry leaders and a host of others. I also read a great deal about youth ministry. I find it helps me to constantly be sharpening myself through reading and processing other folks’ thoughts on youth ministry (or ministry and theology generally). Recently my thinking on youth ministry has focused on the widely differing perspectives various people have on why we have youth ministries in churches. What are we trying to accomplish? What is the point of youth ministry? In short, what’s it all about?
One explanation I often hear–or at least hear implied–is that we have youth ministries because we want students to be safe. For conservatives, this means attracting students to ministries so that they hear the gospel and become Christians (which is variously defined, but normally involves saying a prayer). For mainliners the goal isn’t so much for students to say a prayer but for them to become involved in the denomination. In both cases, part of the goal is that students would be at youth group rather than at other, more worldly entertainments. Success is measured by how many students came and whether or not they had a good time. On another level, success may include not just how many students came, but how many of those students are now leading moral lives (variously defined, but normally meaning no drugs, sex, or alcohol)
A second explanation I often hear flows out of this first one. Folks see the drawbacks of an attractional approach. They are nervous about making success about numbers and fun. These people rightly feel like students want more than some cool games and a chance to hang out. So, they think youth ministry must be about helping students acquire a deeper knowledge of the Bible and theology. The method becomes intense Bible study, or having students read Piper, Wright, or Tillich depending on one’s theological persuasion. A youth ministry is successful when students can reproduce information. When they can pass the test. In short: orthodoxy (however a particular church or group defines it) becomes the goal. Yet too often this way of looking at youth ministry runs the risk of elevating the Bible and theology to the place of gods. We teach our students the Bible as an end, rather than as a means to encountering Christ.
These are the two largest camps. Though there is a third that argues that because of the dismal track record of youth ministry in producing lifelong faith we should abandon the whole enterprise because, by nature, youth ministry subverts the role of parents and the wider church in discipleship. While this group has some helpful critiques to offer, I think they are trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In truth, I think each of the approaches above misses some important facets of youth ministry. So, where do we go? If youth ministry isn’t about packing teens in the building, and it isn’t about teaching them theology or the creeds, but we don’t want to get rid of youth ministry, then what is left? A book–books!–could be written answering that question, and there are no shortage of just such books. I find a great deal of what has been written recently very helpful though.
Youth ministry is not chiefly about getting students to attend our programs, believe our doctrine, repeat our creeds, or love our pet theologians. There may be appropriate times in youth ministry to have a program, to engage with the creeds, to challenge students to greater knowledge of the God we claim to serve, but none of those are the point. The point of youth ministry is the point of all ministry: to join as a community in what God is doing in the world. That is, youth ministry has a necessarily missional shape (as does all ministry). But it also has a communal, or relational shape. But we must always keep in mind that relationships are not a means to an end, but rather an end in and of themselves. We encounter God as we encounter other image-bearers. When I sit down with a teen (or with anyone!) it is not for the purpose of teaching them correct doctrine, or keeping them entertained so I can slip in a Gospel presentation or trick them into being a part of my denomination. When I sit down with another person it is to be with that person as Jesus is with me. And in that relationship the Holy Spirit is at work and makes things happen.
Certainly, I want students to know Jesus as revealed in Scripture more. I think the ancient creeds are a wonderful way of encountering God. I think Christian practices shape us in some amazing ways. Learning to reflect theologically is essential to the Christian life. But none of those things is the Christian life. Simply put, the Christian life is following Jesus within the community he has setup.
In short, youth ministry is not about what we can cause students to become or what we can teach them or how we can shape their behavior. Youth ministry is about encountering the Holy Spirit in the midst of our relationships with one another and–together–working out our faith in Jesus.