The Coming Youth Ministry Reformation

youth-wordleIn 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 youthyouth-ministry 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.

quotebeachWe’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?


4 comments on “The Coming Youth Ministry Reformation

  1. Kevin Yeadon says:

    Looking forward to these posts!

  2. From a broader church perspective, I think some youth ministries need to change. The model of a little mini-church within a larger church is very harmful to the church at large, where it fractures and dissociates the youth from the church, which is full of people who can mentor and encourage our adolescent aged members in their journey of faith, not to mention that the youth offer a unique perspective on life, culture, and tend to be far more empathetic than some of the older church. I think some youth groups want to be entirely independent organizations but are hamstringed by the lack of tithe income, so they keep themselves isolated from those who aren’t “cool” or “young” enough by meeting on a different day, having completely separated small groups and social circles, and having a full service that caters to their own preferences and aesthetics.

    This teaches our young church that our preferences of style, and being catered to, are what we should desire from and require of our churches. It can become egocentric very quickly.

    I’m going to make a completely baseless judgement here and say that a good amount of this stems from the youth pastor viewing youth ministry as more of a stepping stone to lead pastoral work, and not as a specific role unto itself. It can lead to youth pastors using their ministries as microcosms of “big church.” In some cases, these youth pastors decide that they’re tired to doing church the “old” way or however it’s being done by the previous generation, and decide to simply plant their own church, further entrenching the idea that church is built to serve and fulfill our aesthetic and cultural preferences, rather than to challenge us to holiness and further our sanctification through community. I can point to one clear example of a local church that was started this way, though I won’t do so publicly. I’m pretty sure that most youth pastors aren’t even aware of this internal drive, or at least don’t recognize the potential harm that can come from the way that style of ministry is done.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this. I’m not sure exactly what I feel like ought to be proposed as a solution, though I’ve got some basic ideas (some of which you’ve mentioned above). I’ve been out of the loop long enough to not know what’s going on too much anymore.

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