Last week I announced I was going to spend some time this Fall talking about youth ministry. More specifically, how I think it needs to change. Today represents a further effort in that direction.
So: let’s think about youth pastors. In most Protestant churches of a certain size, there is a person on staff whose job it is to provide spiritual guidance and direction to adolescents. The title can vary, from “youth pastor,” “youth minister,” “minister to youth, or even “nextgen pastor” and so on. They have become so common that most congregations accept their role as a given in any hiring strategy.
Youth pastors, of course, have not always existed. While the church has always ministered to its people–younger ones included–the innovation of having a full-time minister for youth is only around thirty to forty years old. A relatively short time when one considers the two thousand years of Christian history.
The need for youth ministry in our current state rose out of perceived changes and needs in American youth culture. The Church had to adapt to changes over time, and in this case it did. But now, a number of decades into this, I would suggest that our experience with youth pastors and the needs we see displayed calls for a new way of thinking about things. As my title suggests, perhaps it is time to bid farewell to youth pastors.
Before you stop reading, please hear me on this. I myself was a youth pastor for six years. Since August 2011 I’ve been the Associate Professor of Youth Ministries at my school. I attend my own church’s youth ministry meetings and serve in a kind of advisory role to youth pastors in our region. Please understand, in other words, that I’m not speaking out of ignorance or any kind of desire to watch the world burn.
When I think about “getting rid” of youth pastors, I’m not saying that we delete the role and subsequently ignore the adolescents in our midst. Far from it. Instead, I believe that churches should rethink the title and responsibilities of youth pastors and their place in our congregations. For too long, hiring someone in this role–while a sign that the church cares about young people–has nevertheless carried with it some problems and limitations.
First, it has meant that working with teenagers has been “outsourced” to the professional, so to speak. The rest of the church need not worry about teens if their resident expert is doing so. Second, the title of “youth pastor” has not been taken as seriously as it should. Instead it is often perceived as a training ground for “real” ministry. Third, having a youth pastor has not only made the congregation more apathetic about its own work with teens, but it may be having the effect of absolving parents and families of their spiritual responsibilities. After all, why do they need to worry about things when Pastor Josh and his college-aged volunteers are doing it all?
Lastly, the existence of the youth pastor can send the silent message to students that he or she is their pastor–not the lead pastor of the entire congregation. In addition to cutting off ministers and youth alike from deeper interaction, this can contribute to an unintentional division within the body of Christ and a continued silo-ization of ministries that is troubling.
To Be Continued…