In my role as Associate Professor of Youth Ministries here at Northwest University, I am afforded more time to reflect on the way we pastor adolescents than I ever had during my years as a youth pastor. As I think about what we’re doing as a Church, I’ve come to the realization that there is change on the horizon. Or at least there probably should be.
I’m not saying anything new, of course. Thoughts of this type are writ all over the associated literature: an argument for the rejection of program-based models, a completely new version of youth ministry more in tune with the shape of youth culture, the desire for a more theological approach to youth ministry, a push to eliminate all age-based ministries in the local church in favor of family-based ministry, etc.
And yet, in what I perceive from many churches (and, indeed, my work as a youth pastor in the mid-2000s), attention to the need for change is not as thorough-going as it could be. In essence, the momentum of a system of traditional “youth group”–in its current iteration only about 30-40 years old–has kept us going back to the same well time and again.
Dominating our collective fields of vision is the model of the traditional youth pastor, a youth group with a mostly separate existence from the larger congregation, and a program-driven existence, all of which can take their cue from the largest youth ministries around. These influences can affect us so much that we don’t think to go outside that box. For many it is simply all we know. The “system” is right in front of us and we buy into when we first enter ministry. By the time we are experienced enough to start to question it, we have been doing it so long we either don’t see the need for change or are so caught up that it is difficult to get out.
We’ve invested an awful lot in getting youth ministry where it is today. And I’m glad the Church has understood the vital need that is out there. I simply worry that in so doing we have baptized one model or way of doing things as a final destination rather than a temporary stop on the ever-progressing journey of adolescent ministry. Both the role of the youth pastor and the shape of youth ministry are going to change. They should change. The question is, are churches and church leaders ready for it to do so, no matter the cost or disruption this may involve to our systems, our budgets, and ourselves?
This Fall I’ll hope to explore some of the changes I think we should consider. I hope that you’ll offer some feedback along the way. For right now I’ll just ask this: what needs to change in the way we do youth ministry?