Australian Catholics. Not exactly where I’d expect to read about a debate concerning youth ministry. But here it is, courtesy of CathNews:
Australia Incognita reflects on youth ministry in a post titled “Is this really where the Church should be spending its scarce dollars?” She was prompted by last week’s Australian Bishops Conference announcement that it is offering scholarships for Broken Bay’s Catholic Youth Ministry and Campus Ministry Certificate.“Youth ‘ministry’ has certainly been a huge growth industry in most dioceses in recent years. But is it a sensible investment? … In my view, the answer is no.”
As the discussion progresses, two increasingly familiar positions emerge: one that sees youth ministry as largely a catechetical enterprise aimed at acclimating youth to doctrine, behavior, and other aspects of being a “grownup” Christian. If the church isn’t doing that, youth ministry has then failed. The second has more to do with coming alongside of teenagers in their process of grappling with faith and life and accompanying them along the way. Simple indoctrination will never meet the deep needs of teens.
This is not simply a Roman Catholic debate. Not at all. In the world that I live this debate is alive and well…and I suspect just beginning to heat up. Tyrone Rinta, fellow Assemblies of God minister and local youth pastor, has recently offered his philosophy of youth ministry (focusing particularly upon evangelism, discipleship, and leadership development) in his blog, noting that:
The future of the church rests on the church’s ability to reach the younger generation. If the church continues at its current rate, however, the future of the church will look dismal. Recent statistics tell us that only 4-17% of the millennial generation are Bible believing Christians. Couple this with the statistic that 85-90% of those who make a decision to live for Christ do so before the age of 25 and the need for thriving a youth ministry in the local church becomes even clearer.
Someone like Andrew Root of Luther Seminary would likely see this statement as motivated by fear and our desire to mold others into the “safe” Christians we want them to be. In his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, he lifts up the important of being place-sharers with teens and avoiding what might be called manipulation (Root, 10):
Instead of seeking to touch the mysterious inner reality of relationships we have too often settled for using relationships as a means to influence kids toward certain ends.
Some might be tempted to see this debate as one of liberals versus conservatives or Christ-centered ministries over against those organized around a therapeutic model of faith. I disagree. I think that the model than Rinta and many others (including myself) often hold to makes sense. Teens are in crisis, even as our world has been since the Fall. We ought to be alarmed, and the Church of Jesus Christ has much to offer and teach. Yet Root has been continually chipping away at this perspective in my mind, calling me to ask myself why we do the things we do in ministry…and asking the bold and dangerous question: what if we let go of trying so hard to change students, simply shared Christ with our lives and presence, and let Him begin to work all around us. What if we just loved as we live in Christ’s love and let God move?
It is a beautiful picture, but can seem a bit apathetic. If a teen is about to overdose or commit suicide or otherwise endanger themselves, place-sharing no longer suffices. There are times when we need to influence and act. Root would certainly agree with me here, and I don’t want to overexaggerate his perspective on these points.
All in all, I’m still struggling here, but know that God is faithful. Look forward in the coming months for more reflection on youth ministry as place-sharing versus influence-bearing. My thoughts are in shorthand here, and they ought to be expanded.
Ultimately, a more important question than “Is youth ministry a waste of time? is thus probably: “Is the kind of youth ministry I’m doing a waste of time?” or “Am I doing this for the wrong reasons?”