Is Youth Ministry A Waste Of Time?

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?”

Time’s yours.

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18 comments on “Is Youth Ministry A Waste Of Time?

  1. Andy Wong says:

    Answer a question with a question:
    “Is the kind of ministry the church (lower case ‘c’) is doing a waste of time?”

    Because if what I see in the majority of churches in America is the model of Christianity we give to teens in crisis, it will never transform them into mature, passionate, adult Christians. Heck, it won’t even get them through adolescence.

    • Andy-

      Good question here. As Kenda would be quick to remind me, youth ministry IS ministry.

      This makes me think. Tony Jones of the emerging movement has been talking/writing about how many of those involved in such emergence have come out of youth ministry. I suppose the space it creates for experimentation, awareness of changing culture, and critique of current models provided some kind of a template for other forms of re-form. I suppose to further this conversation, we’d have to talk about what it is you mean, exactly: what forms are so ill-suited for teens, or anyone? I can hazard some guesses from my end…

      By the way, I’d recommend Andrew Root’s new book “The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry” if you haven’t already taken a look at it.

      • Andy Wong says:

        Maybe I’m a jaded, but I just see SO many pew sitters who are Christian and go to church, but really have very little of their life invested in their faith. Even super basic practices like prayer, bible study, service, and giving seem to be secondary to earning more, getting the kids into a good school, and keeping up with the Joneses.

        Not to even mention more mature faith practices like evangelism, leadership development/mentoring, accountability/discipline, self-sacrifice, etc.

      • Andy Wong says:

        And to add to that:
        Sadly, at least in the Presbyterian branch of the vine, it seems what “ministry” we are most comfortable doing (or the ministry that requires the least arm twisting) is maintenance ministry: worship, buildings and grounds, existing fellowship groups, Christian Education. I would bet that well north of 80% of an average PCUSA church’s time, talent, and treasure is spent on keeping existing things going for people who are already there.

      • The cynical side of me thinks emergent church people tend to come out of youth ministry because both are interested in tailoring worship to the specific tastes of a demographic. If you do that with youth ministry, teens will then “graduate” to thinking a church is right for them unless it has a good singles program, then a young adult program, then a good program for their kids, etc. Go figure that tons of thirty-somethings want church to feel like a coffee shop or a music club or whatever.

      • excuse me: “…thinking a church is *not* right for them unless…”

      • Andy Wong says:

        I share Scott’s cynicism about the emergent church movement. I’m glad that it’s challenging a lot of the assumptions about what “church” is and can be and that’s incredibly important, but I agree that at the end of the day, it’s still very much about consuming church.

        We’re still talking about “getting people to come” rather than “sending people to serve.”

  2. Andy Wong says:

    Is that really the faith we’re teaching to our youth in crisis?
    “Oh Johnny, you feel inadequate, unworthy, alone and afraid? Why don’t you join a committee or attend a Sunday school class!”

  3. Hey, I’m enjoying the blog. I haven’t read Root, so I may be misunderstanding or saying something redundant. That said, I would point out:

    We as people experience love and fidelity broadly, but I think it’s part of human nature (or at least part of our culture) to define their meaning conceptually. Teens will look until they find *some* meaning for what love and acceptance are. Consider this guy A.J. Miller in Australaia, who claims he’s Jesus and helps people experience love and healing: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML2Oa4Oigvo). More obviously, of course, teens will interpret love in light of New Age ideas, or pluralism, or whatever.

    If our ministry doesn’t make it explicit that the Gospel is the true meaning of love and acceptance, and that all desire for acceptance is a desire for God in Christ, then teens will simply find some other meaning to tack onto it.

    I think the concern should be when we make the specific meanings very explicit –– say, using love to convince kids they need to hold our specific doctrine. I admit that makes me nervous. But if we imply to the kids that doctrine isn’t all that important, they’ll just assume we don’t have any truth. Then they’ll go find what they think *is* truth instead.

    • Scott:

      Yep, I decided to blog again. It has been too long, and in some ways, I want to use it to have the conversations we’re having right now.

      I think your thoughts regarding making the gospel explicit are right on. Simple “place-sharing” is nice, but devoid of any referent to the One whose love drives us towards that same place-sharing seems to run a bit counter-purpose. I also agree that we need to be very clear about why we are doing what we are doing. Root is in someways a gadfly that may overstate his case, awakening us to potential abuses of so-called “relational” youth ministry. Taken to its most dangerous extreme, how is hyper-relational youth ministry done only for the purpose of getting teens to do or be something or act a certain way any different than a cult?

      Perhaps this is the Pentecostal in me (you’re a kind of restorationist yourself, so you may have sympathy with me here), but I also want to be clear that while teaching the Faith is essential, doctrine qua doctrine is dead in and of itself. Does it point us in a direction? Does it help us experience or understand love and fidelity broadly? If our answers to these questions are no, then it is devoid of meaning.

      If I never teach a teenager about the doctrine of the Trinity because I’m convinced that doctrine doesn’t matter to their lives, I’m generally OK with this.

      JRZ

    • Andy Wong says:

      “If our ministry doesn’t make it explicit that the Gospel is the true meaning of love and acceptance, and that all desire for acceptance is a desire for God in Christ, then teens will simply find some other meaning to tack onto it.”

      But what is the best way to make this explicit? I would venture to say that it has very little to do with any program or event or even any relationship in the place-sharing sense. I would think it has to do with the uniqueness of the Christian message which is the radicality (is that a word?) of the love Christ preaches. Unlike New Agey, morally relative, pluralistic, post modern philosophical soup, the Christian message has a very clear message of radical self sacrifice that teens WANT to believe is true and right and good.

      The best way to convey this uniqueness (or possibly the only way) is to model it for them and mentor them in it (i.e. Paul and Timothy, Jesus and Peter, Elijah and Elisha), not teach it to them in youth group or Sunday School.

      I guess in summary, if we aren’t practicing radical self-sacrificial love ourselves (what I would say is the unique message of Christianity in relation to everything else out there), how can we make the claim that Christianity is different or better than everything else out there.

    • I love the discussion, and I’d also “amen” most of what y’all are saying. I definitely agree that most people will never care about doctrine unless they are struck by experiencing the love of Christ through people. I also think that needs to be balanced by the more explicit teachings of who God is, which is what we usually do in Sunday school.

      So for example, there have been lots of martyrs (Christian and otherwise) who have loved self-sacrificially, and those stories might show our teens the power of being loved by people, and by implication, of being loved by God. The Christian Gospel says that God chose to become flesh and die, which I think gives them something else they can’t get simply from the practice of Christian love.

      So then I agree that abstract lessons about the trinity, apart from a context of Christ’s love, don’t make sense. If we are hypocritical and only preach about God’s love, without doing anything with our own live, the kids we try to teach aren’t going to learn who God truly is. On the other other hand, if a kid wants to know what it means that God created her, that God loves her, and that God is always present with her –– well that’s what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about. So I would think that the kid who only hears the lesson about the Trinity may never come to much of a relationship with God at all, but the kid who never hears the lesson about the Trinity is probably not going to grow much in whatever relationship is there.

      • Scott,

        Good stuff. Embodiment of doctrine is essential. Your points about the Trinity are right on.

        JRZ

      • Andy Wong says:

        But I’m not sure the best place to learn the doctrine of the Trinity (and in particular, the truths that God created, that God loves, and that God is always present with) is in a Sunday School classroom. I would still say that the best place to learn those truths and thus, that doctrine is out in the mission field.

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