Prodigal-Based Youth Ministry

I’m working through the book Sticky Faith with my Youth Discipleship students right now.  Reading it always draws me back to the story of the “Prodigal Son.”

The central premise of our textbook is this: a large majority of students who embrace Christianity during their teenage years and follow the traditional “youth group” experience walk away from their faith in the early years of college and/or young adulthood.  In an effort to create a faith that is more “sticky,” the authors encourage churches, parents, and youth ministers to build deep and diverse relationships with teens even as they help them ask real, deep, and complex questions about their faith.

I think about the story of the Prodigal Son in this mix because it is about two young men.  One is the stay-at-home do-gooder.  The other lives the wild life.  Yet at the end of the story, the one with the better relationship with his father is the son who left to explore the “far country.”  The faithful, stay-at-home child has, it turns out, a somewhat stunted view of what it means to be a son.

In some ways the story from Luke 15 supports the complexifying of faith that the Sticky Faith people urge.*  For instance, while making us contented youth ministers in the here and now, having a group of students who are seemingly “safe” and apparently obedient at all times (like the elder son) should not be our goal.  Yet the implications of the biblical story are more haunting then that.  The younger son doesn’t just consider tough questions about his relationship with his father.  He actually leaves it behind.  Only after he discovers the bankruptcy of life outside his family does he return.

The implications of this for modern youth ministry are…unsettling.  Amongst the Amish, after all, some young people roam free in the wide world before entry into religious adulthood.  Most of them choose to take their place back home after their time in the world.

Am I suggesting we encourage students to roam free and deny themselves no worldly experience because maybe it will make them holy?  I don’t think so…but there is the possibility that this approach could be more beneficial than operating a youth ministry out of fear just to keep students safe.  As it turns out, staying at home didn’t mean the elder son knew what it was all about.  Being a “good” youth group student doesn’t guarantee lasting faith either.

While the answers are-as usual-probably somewhere more towards the middle, I believe strongly that students and young adults must ultimately make their own decisions.  Hopefully we will have prepared them to think through things with godly wisdom, but the choices they make in their lives must be theirs.  We cannot force them to make the right decision every single time.  To do so is ultimately foolish, for it is both an untenable practice and accomplishes nothing but rigid adherence to a set of external rules.  Authentic personhood and authentic Christianity requires more.

Sticky Faith and approaches like it are pushing us in the right direction.  We just need to have the courage to let students-mentored and guided by loving parents, teachers, friends, and ministers-begin to make decisions on their own.

Even if sometimes they are the wrong ones.

*My good friend and colleague Will Cosnett has offered some helpful exegetical points about the passage in question (see comments section), and I’ve edited the post in response.  I still think there are some ways that it may connect with the main theme here.

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4 comments on “Prodigal-Based Youth Ministry

  1. wcosnett says:

    I completely agree with the need for an increased attention to stickiness in ministry, not just for youth but for people of all ages. I’m not sure the prodigal son parable is the best illustration though. The “good” sons anger came from the fact that he felt his brother was being rewarded for improper behavior, while his service was not recognized appropriately. He specifically says that he’s upset because the fatted calf was killed for his undeserving brother, while he was never allowed a goat which he felt he deserved. His issue is not that he was sheltered from the world, but that he was doing right for the wrong reasons. He worked with his father not because he loved him and wanted to do right by him, but because he was expecting to be rewarded some day. He deserved his fathers love while his brother didn’t. The point is that we should follow God because we love him and want to do whats right, not because we are earning a reward, and that those who come to the faith later in life are no more or less deserving than those who come to it early.

    I agree completely with working to equip students to make decisions on their own, and that it should be a combination of ministers, parents, teachers, and other mentors in their life who are working with them. I also completely agree that the success of a youth ministry or a Christian Education program should be judged not just by the number of people in attendance but by the number who are still involved in the faith 5, 10, 15 years after.

    It’s not that one son was kept safe and one wasn’t, and the one who was let loose ended up better off for it. Both sons made a choice, and both made their choices for the wrong reason. One realized his mistake and asked for forgiveness, which was freely given. The other had yet to repent, and at the end of the story is left in the cold. In both cases the father showed love and understanding and offered forgiveness. I’m not sure I’d say either son journey is an ideal we should hope for in our youth, but we can look to the father as an example, showing love and understanding to all his children equally, no matter their faults, and always welcoming them home.

    • Will,

      I see what you’re saying here. Potentially (nay, likely) questionable exegesis on my part. I think I very well may be reading into the story in ways it did not intend.

      This said, perhaps another way to involve the story and think about the same idea is this: students that we think are “safe” because they stay with the youth group and do what we expect (elder son) might not be, while those who broaden their understanding through questioning, life experience, and the occasional wrong decisions (younger son) might be those who develop lasting faith.

      Upon reflection, I think that’s a better way of looking at it.

      Principally, though, I’m glad to hear your agreement.

    • I’m actually editing some of the post to reflect this nuance.

  2. wcosnett says:

    I like the new take on the story. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read it. Like the son who stayed home, just because we have youth that are regular attenders, do all the work, say the right things, doesn’t necessarily mean their doing it for the right reasons, or that their getting the message and building the faith we think they are. The questions then is, how can we tell if the message is getting through, if actions are not always a reflection of the heart? How do we build a faith based on love and sacrifice, instead of obligation and reward? Or more directly related to your post, how can we foster and encourage questioning and critical thinking about the faith within the supportive structure of the church so they have the tools to make informed and faithful decisions.

    Sidenote – We did a piece in one of Kenda’s classes about how authentic the “sending out” of the Rumspringa actually was, but that’s probably another discussion for another time.

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