Is There a Future For Youth Ministry?…

In a couple of weeks I will be sitting on a panel with a small group of other ministers from various backgrounds discussing the future of ‘youth ministry’. I will be wearing my Forge and ’emerging church’ planting is the hat, as well as having a bit of a clue as I spent 18 years in youth ministry of various sorts.

(Be warned” This is a long post and is my way of thinking out loud on this subject before I need to speak about it… I May disagree with myself tomorrow)

Some of the big questions around at present include:
• Is youth ministry working?
• What does an ‘incarnational’ youth ministry look like?
• Is youth ministry a valid ministry in itself or is it ultimately self defeating in that we create separate sub groups with the body and segregate families?
• Should we have youth pastors?
• What is the fruit of youth led youth ministries?

It seems there has been a significant shift in recent years amongst thinking youth pastors away from the good old stock standard youth ministry practices of running school programs, youth groups, small groups and Sunday (usually evening) services to a more intentional and relational approach.

At the end of the day the bottom line question for me is always going to be the same:

Are we producing disciples of Jesus Christ?

Are we actually seeing young people transformed into the image of Christ as they are involved in our ministries or are we keeping them entertained and wowed until they feel like they want to move on to the next show in town?

Are we disciple makers or baby sitters?

Having led a so called whiz bang youth ministry that grew rapidly, saw a heap of conversions and was flavour of the month for a while I think 5 years on I’m able to look back and see some of the good and the bad of it.

Using the traditional methods we did:
– put ourselves in contact with many young people
– manage to attract a fair number of them to our programs (at least for a time)
– see them explore faith to some degree
– see some grow in faith and become disciples

We also:
– invested huge time and people resources in making events happen that would hopefully attract young people
– created an alternative sub-culture that we set against the mainstream to some degree. We definitely called people ‘out of the world’ and into the ‘youth scene’
– saw young people become increasingly demanding when it came to ‘quality’ of church services and eventually saw those same young people tire of what we had to offer and move on.
– burnt out a lot of leaders as we sought to keep the ministry growing
– used people as leaders who were probably quite suspect in regard to their own discipleship because of their relative immaturity.

I spent most of my youth ministry time working off the YM Strategy model and while we did see some people become disciples probably 70% would not be connected in any faith community today and I’m sure plenty of them would see their Christian faith as a ‘stage they went thru’.

That would seem to be normal for many youth ministries and has to concern us! Getting them there is probably 1% of the battle. Making disciples is a hell of a lot harder.

In my time at Lesmurdie I was all for growing a ‘youth church’ where young people did everything with minimal adult involvement and it did generate some serious enthusiasm sometimes simply because we thought we could do it ‘better’ than the adults. (‘It’ being music and performance stuff)

People would sometimes ask me where it was all headed. Where did these young people go when they got too old for youth church? Would they come to Sunday morning services? As if!”

To some degree we had created a monster and didn’t know what to with it. It was an upwards spiral and destined to explode at some point.

That was then – 7 years ago.

The question being explored now is what are the alternatives to mainstream approaches to youth ministry? And” who will have the balls to implement them? (Because it will bring some serious pain!)

The only youth pastor I have seen who courageously attempted a radically different approach to youth min with an incarnational emphasis ran seriously foul of powerful parents who wanted safe spaces for their kids and were concerned that the lack of programs would see their children either leave that particular church or the church in general. There was also concern that encouraging young people to hang out with their non-christian friends might see them lose their way with faith, start drinking, taking drugs sleeping around etc.

This pastor was and still is a good mate and a great bloke, however I think it would be fair to say these significant conceptual shifts and structural changes in approach to youth ministry weren’t communicated or implemented in the most effective ways, so while the ideas / practices may have had merit they finished up causing a huge bunfight and actually set the cause on its heels to some degree.

Bummer because it was a well reasoned appraoch both theologically and sociologically.

The serious tension in all of this is that youth pastors are not paid to equip young people to become missionaries in their local contexts. This is not a high priority of most local church parents. Even if they verbalise it as a priority much higher on the agenda is the task of keeping my kid safe and preventing them from losing their way spiritually as they move thru adolescence. With missionary engagement involving risk and movement into what may be seen as dangerous territory there are going to be more than a few sparks for any youth pastor who tries to re-shape the system.

No parent wants to see their child placed at risk and to some degree that is a fair thing. Let me develop that idea a little.

Let’s use the pub as a ‘risky’ venue. (‘How lame’ I hear you say – but to evangelical parents the pub is the nemesis) A youth pastor may suggest that rather than running an all in jelly and vegemite games night the young people in his care head down to the local hang out in a group and spend some time with other local young people. They incarnate into that cultural space. I think Jesus would be ok with this 🙂

However, upon hearing this the protective parental instincts of the said young people instantly surface, fed by lurid images of Johnny coming home drunk and 3 months later annoucning that some unknown girl is pregnant and he is the father.

There is a risk that Johnny will get drunk. There is a risk that while drunk Johnny will sleep with a girl who he doesn’t know. There is a risk that Johnny will become an alcoholic, a porn star, a drug dealer, a politician”

There is also a risk that by not going Johnny learns that the core of the gospel is about ‘clean moral living’, about not going to places where you could be contaminated and not doing things that might put you on the slippery slope to losing your salvation. There is a risk that Johnny will turn out to be unable to integrate his faith with life – that he will live a safe, uncomplicated life as a ‘nice boy’ and that eventually he will grow up and wonder what the hell its has all been for.

Why has he embraced such an anaemic expression of faith where the core values are centred on what you and don’t do? What happened to the ‘radical gospel’ he heard communicated as a teenager? At one point he was prepared to die for Jesus – now he was in a depressing rut of wowserism. (Ok this is getting too autobiographical!)

Maybe then Johnny will reproduce another little Johnny who will do the same… or maybe he will reject the faith of his family and begin to discover his own faith… or maybe Johnny will just think church is for losers and give it up altogether.

I have seen all these things happen.

As I wear my Forge hat I find myself asking quite simply if we apply missionary principles to a group of young people what shape might a youth ministry take?…

If we see ourselves as devloping ecclesial missions then how might we approach that?

I guess the short term answer is that we can’t know. We can’t predict what form we will need to shape up until we understand the specific youth sub-culture/s we are engaging with.

But if I can be a tad cynical, the major stumbling blocks to experimentation in youth ministry will be the expectations of tithing, salary paying parents and the inability of the young people themselves to give up their entertainment paradigm.

Tough times ahead for youth pastors I reckon…

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