Church Planting as Youth Ministry: Pawns vs. Players (Two Views of the Role of Youth in the Mission of the Church)

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Church Planting as Youth Ministry is an ongoing column which draws together insights from two crucial spheres of ministry: youth ministry and church planting. Authors such as Tim Keller have quantified the effective disciple-making that happens through church planting. This trend is encouraging when applied to youth — one of the largest generational mission fields in history. Youth workers are on the “front lines” of this spiritual battleground, and would do well to study the missionary methods of church planters. Likewise, church planters would be wise to learn from effective student ministers, as youth are clearly integral to the success of the church’s mission. Both groups strive towards a common goal: to see students surrender to Jesus and find belonging with his people. This column serves as a place where ideas and wisdom can be exchanged between these two groups.

In the first Church Planting as Youth Ministry article, I wrote about two important statistics which are evident in the modern-day church.

First – young people are particularly receptive to the proclamation of the gospel message, and should therefore receive a priority in any church’s vision for evangelism and discipleship.

Second – youth disproportionately desire the affirmation and acceptance of their peers, and are thus heavily influenced by them. By implication, youth who have found ultimate acceptance in Christ are some of the most effective missionaries to the members of their own age bracket.

That first article concluded with challenging questions addressed to all varieties of ministry leaders. Do we mobilize youth as key players in God’s rescue mission to the world? Or, do we simply arrange them as pawns on a figurative Great Commission chess board – seemingly insignificant in comparison to more seasoned members of the church?

To which philosophy do you adhere?

Pawns vs. Players
I’m no Bobby Fisher, but I enjoy playing chess from time to time. And in my very limited proficiency, I differentiate between two general classes of chess pieces. First, there are pawns: eight pieces that move just one space on the board at a time (except on their first move in a game). Pawns can only “capture” pieces located diagonally-adjacent to themselves, and can only move in a forward direction on the board.

Second, there are what I deem the “players:” two rooks, two knights, two bishops, a queen, and a king. These pieces are much more powerful than the pawns, and are much more indispensable in the quest to victory (again, this metaphor only holds up to my limited understanding of chess strategy). The players can move in a multitude of forward-and-backward directions, and can traverse multiple spaces at a time (except for the king).

As the chess match unfolds, I’ve found that the players are typically the pieces that do most of the “work” to achieve victory. The pawns have a role predominately of background support: blocking a piece here, freeing up a space there, and often being sacrificed to the opposition for the sake of preserving a more powerful player. If a pawn can remain uncaptured throughout the match – well and good. But more often than not, it becomes necessary to move the pawns out of the way in order to enable the free movement of the players – even if doing so ultimately leads to the pawn’s demise.

From Chess to the Church
The above metaphor has many similarities to the Western world. The industrial revolution has brought innumerable advantages to our society. And yet through the mass-mechanization of both factories and the workforce, people came to be valued largely based on what they could do or contribute to the company, rather than for who they intrinsically were as human beings created in God’s image. Like it or not, we live in a world that differentiates between pawns and players.

The church should be immune from such thought patterns. Ephesians 4:4 is clear – irrespective of age, experience, net worth, or skillset, each follower of Christ is engrafted without discrimination as a diverse-but-universally-valued member of the Global Church, because God the Holy Spirit indwells each one to the same degree. Building upon that theme, Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV, emphasis added) presents the ideal paradigm for ministry within the local church.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

All followers of Christ are joined heart, mind, body, and soul to the One who was slain to purchase their salvation. And as promised in these verses from Ephesians 4, Christ is faithful to promote the growth of his body in love, unity, and full maturity. But don’t miss the methodology which Christ has chosen to promote this growth amongst the members of his body. Christian growth – both at the individual level and corporately throughout the church – is most effectively achieved when “each part [of the body] is working properly.”

According to Scripture, there are no pawns within the body of Christ. Each member of the body plays a unique role, but each one is vital to the growth of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The Application for Youth Ministry
As was discussed in my previous Church Planting as Youth Ministry article, a church may have a relatively large number of youthful followers of Jesus at any given time. I have heard no small number of ministry leaders, most with sincere intentions, relegate these young people to “pawn status” in the mission of God. These leaders offer the following explanation of their ministry philosophies:

“If you want to attract lost parents, seeking parents, influential parents, or tithing parents to your church,” they will say, “then you’ve got to have top-notch programming for their kids.”

As a father of a daughter and a soon-to-be-born son, I value our church’s children’s ministry. It is safe, clean, and visibly secured – all realities which give my wife and me great confidence to drop off our children there. As our children mature, I want them to enjoy being part of the church. As such, I will have no complaints about a ministry to students which is well-designed, orchestrated with excellence, mindful of safety, and downright fun.

But parenting while preparing to plant a church has given me a perspective that most parents and ministry leaders do not have. I hope and pray that my children will surrender to the Lordship of King Jesus – sooner rather than later in life. If God is pleased to honor that prayer, then I want our church to view my children (and other believing children) as more than merely a means to the end of attracting adults to our church. I want these children – and others like them – to be viewed as more than pawns in the economy of God’s mission.

The rationale behind these desires is simple. If the youth of the church are indwelt by God the Spirit, then they are equal recipients of God’s grace and salvation, and they are equal players in God’s mission. Each has been equipped by God to play a unique role in the body of Christ. And without their contributions to the body, their growth in Christ will be stunted – as will the missional effectiveness of the church as a whole.

I don’t want that for my kids. And I don’t want that for Christ’s church. After reading this brief article, my hope is that many fellow parents and ministry leaders feel likewise.

How can churches structure their ministries in accordance with this perspective of Scripture? How can leaders equip students for meaningful service within the Kingdom of God, and in so doing, promote the health and the missional effectiveness of our churches?

It is to these practical questions that we will turn in the next Church Planting as Youth Ministry article.

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