I've never been a fan of the "purpose-driven" craze, partly because I think they are just stating the obvious and partly because, owing to my particular location within what some call "progressive Christianity," I do not share their focus on evangelism as a means towards salvation of the lost. In fact, we simply do not talk about salvation and the afterlife much in my Christian circles.
I recently preached on Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus, which appears on the surface to be a story about the afterlife. But I remarked (and this is no observation unique to myself) that it really is not a story about the afterlife. It is a story about life in the here-and-now. It's a story about the opportunities we have before us to live in the Kingdom/Kindom/Realm/Empire of God each existential moment of life. I think Christianity has a great deal to say to us about the present life. But if pressed as a pastor to say anything about "the next life," I really would have very little to share, other than I trust that as God cares for us now, God will care for us eternally. What shape that eternity will take -- I haven't a clue. Nor do I think worrying about it should preoccupy our time. I do not believe that the primary focus of Christianity should be a concern about the afterlife. The primary focus of Christianity should be our relationship with God through Christ right now, and the possibility of that relationship to heal and transform the world.
With all that in mind, I started wondering just what we might say the purpose of youth ministry might be. For some who read this blog, it may very well be the salvation of souls from eternal damnation. But for those of us who do not ascribe to that brand of the Christian faith, what other possibilities motivate us? Here are a few I'd suggest (of course, this list is not exhaustive and your list will be different depending on your own understanding of the faith, the sort of church in which you serve, and the particular group of youth you lead) :
To Introduce Youth to the Christian Faith: Not too long ago I wrote about Mike Yaconelli's assertion that youth are too young to be disciples. Becoming a disciple of Christ is more than taking an oath (because, as Marcus Borg often says, this would be "salvation by syllables"). Becoming a disciple takes a journey. It takes a willingness to sacrifice, walk through some fire, and struggle. Many youth have yet to give themselves over to this sort of commitment to faith. But one goal of youth ministry can be to introduce them to what it means to follow Christ--to introduce them to Christ's radical, boundary-breaking way of peace and justice. To help them be, in a sense, interns for Christ. In this way, we are perhaps preparing teens to become the disciple they will be later in life.
To Help Youth Build Community: The Christian faith is built upon community. It is built upon compassionate relationships that recognize all as beloved of God. One goal of youth ministry should be to help youth learn what it means to live in radically open and loving community. Youth ministry should offer opportunties for youth to experiment with what this sort of community might look like. It should provide youth a glimpse of what it means to be loved unconditionally. It should help youth struggle with loving others even when it is difficult.
To Help Youth Uncover Their Spiritual Gifts: Teens are bombarded with messages that tell them that their self-worth will ultimately be tied to the size of their paycheck and their ability to consume within our capitalist economy. Youth ministry can help youth see that they have God-given gifts that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. These gifts could include, among others, mission, prayer, teaching, healing, and hospitality.
To Be Spiritual Companions to Youth: Let's face it. Being a teenager is tough. Not many of us would relive those days even if we could. Teens struggle with issues of self-worth, confusion about identity, and worries about fitting in. Youth ministry programs can offer youth the mentorship of faithful adults who will love them just as they are, walk with them on their spiritual journey, and help them navigate the challenges of adolescence.
To Awaken Youth to God's Presence: Many teens have lived so long with the idea that God lives "up there" or "out there" that they find it difficult to figure out where God is in their lives. Youth ministry can help attune youth to the God-saturated world we live in by introducing them to a variety of Christian spiritual practices that can help to awaken our sensitivity to God's presence.