Tuesday, January 08, 2008

    Abolish Youth Ministry? No!

    I've been reading some blog chatter lately questioning the very existence of youth ministry. "Why have it at all?" they ask. "Where in the Bible does it say we should have youth ministries in our churches?"
    A legitimate question, I suppose, which of course leads to other questions such as "Why have choirs/sermons/PowerPoint/greeters/pews/stained glass/etc.? Where in the Bible does it say we should have any of those things or, for that matter, most of the other trappings of the modern-day church?"

    My denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), chose to split with their more conservative brethren long ago partially over just these sorts of questions. One side felt that if the Bible doesn't say you can do it, you don't do it (hence, they wouldn't use musical instruments in worship). The other side felt if the Bible doesn't say anything against it, it's okay to consider. My tradition grew out of this latter point of view. As such, I don't necessarily need to look for a justification for youth ministry within scripture. I don't need a scripture that says "Thou shalt separate your youngest into tabernacles full of old couches and fussball tables for Bible study and pizza" in order to justify unique ministry programs for adolescents. To put it bluntly: the Bible isn't the last word on every subject facing the Church. It is just possible that there might be some things about today's culture that those folks two thousand years ago (and more) didn't think of or even consider. So we balance the wisdom of scripture with tradition, experience, and reason. Each of these tell me that life for a 21st century teenager living in the western world might be just a wee bit different than the life of an adolescent living in first century Palestine. All of which convinces me that, within our definition of "The Church," there is room and need for what we might call the "Youth Church."

    What is the youth church? A tough question to answer, as we all come from very different ministry settings. But, at its essence, I would describe the youth church as existing whenever and wherever youth come together in an awareness of themselves as part of the body of Christ while participating in God’s mission in the world. Two implications naturally grow out of this definition. Firstly, that the youth church can exist outside the organized Church. Secondly, everything the organized church does involving youth is not necessarily the youth church. Or in other words, a pizza party might be “church” or it might just be a pizza party, depending on how youth and adult mentors approach the experience.

    Now, you might ask “Why even make the distinction? Why separate the youth from the rest of the church?” On the surface, I would tend to agree with this attitude. I am a strong proponent for integrating youth as much as possible into the whole life of the Church. We’ve done a pretty poor job of this in the past few decades as we’ve developed youth programming that isolates young people from adult activity within local congregations. But we cannot forgot that adolescents are fundamentally different from adults. We cannot forget that they are developmentally different, physically different, socially and emotionally different. We cannot forget that, at least in North American culture, adolescence is a time for identity formation. Teenagers are seeking to gain independence from parents and other adults and answer the question “Who am I as an individual?” Interestingly enough, youth often attempt to struggle with this question by partitioning themselves off with groups of peers who are asking the same question. So we should not be surprised when youth, seeking to develop their identity as persons of faith, choose to do so by separating themselves from some of the traditional structures, practices, and even adult leaders who have been part of their church upbringing from childhood.

    Youth do need their own space in the church. They do need developmentally appropriate worship and learning experiences. But all of this must happen within the context of the whole church. As much as possible, youth should interact with a wide variety of adults in the church. They should have the opportunity to learn how the church functions and what it takes to keep all the ministries humming. They should offer worship leadership (and not just once a year!). They should help teach younger children and take part in cross-generational mission activities. They should be included in stewardship efforts and consulted on worship style. In this way, the “youth church” becomes an inner circle within the wider church and its mission.

    Does the Bible mandate such an approach to youth in the Church? Read Deuteronomy 6:1-9. We are tasked, as older brothers and sisters, to teach our younger brothers and sisters the stories, the great truths, the revelation of God's presence in this world. We are tasked to help them make those ancients stories their own. But "how" we teach them is open to discussion and is driven by our ability to be led by God into new ways of seeing and understanding the Church and what it means to be a child in today's world.

    Coming Next: Abolish Youth Ministry? YES!


    salmos73 said...

    I just wanted to say that your blog is a little misleading. You say that "The Bible isn't the final authority on all decisions", but God says it is contains all we need for life and godliness. I don't believe you mean to, but you sound as though your pulling down the Bible and placing it on the same plane as experience. That would not be wise. Job, Joseph, Paul, and many Bible persons would have had to say that following God was not worth it based on experience. They were beaten, rejected, lost everything, some had few or no following, imprisoned, etc. Yet they hung on the hope of God's Word (written and revealed prophetically to them). I do agree with your ending - youth should be involved in the ministries of the church ALONGSIDE adults - how else can the elder teach the younger? Yes, there are things like youth group, powerpoint, etc that are not specifically mentioned in Scripture; but the idea of discipling, worshiping, teaching God's Word, serving, and evangelizing are. The means have changed, but the Word remains the same.

    Jay Miklovic said...

    First... sorry for commenting on such an old post (got here through the tags.)

    I am a youth minister, of course I do find value in youth ministry. However I think 'Adolescence' and how we handle it has caused much trouble in American Christendom.

    The tendency, as you point out, for teenagers who are trying to figure things out is to gather together with others on the same quest. It is the blind leading the blind. They group together, and then remain in 'Adolescence' into their 30s or later(just look around). The reason people never grow up is because they have isolated themselves from Men and Women. Most of youth ministry encourages the lack of growing up, and promotes groping around in the dark with other youth.

    The other problem is that youth ministers are usually young video game addicts / sports junkies who love to be around kids in a friend role only and rarely in an adult role. In fact it is often debatable if some youth ministers themselves have entered into Manhood or Womanhood.

    I do not know the answer... but we must find a way for youth to be side by side with adults often... even more than their time with peers in order that they learn the faith and what it means to men and women. True Manhood and Womanhood should be entered into well before a youth's 18th birthday if we actually promoted it.

    Definitely do not mean to be arrogant here... do not misunderstand... just trying to find out how to solve what is a very real problem in the way we treat adolescence.

    Brian said...

    THanks for commenting on this vintage post! This is more on the forefront of the youth ministry discussion now then when I wrote it. Many are coming to see what you advocate -- that youth need interaction with mature Christian adults -- rather than being primarily segregated off with other youth who know as little about the Bible/faith/Christianity as they do.