It All Began with the Young People: Edwards and Youth Ministry

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Reading biographies is always rewarding, often surprisingly so.  Some time ago I was reading through George Marsden’s tremendous Jonathan Edwards: A Life and found something I was not looking for.  In describing the first revival that Edwards led as a pastor in Northampton, Marsden writes, “It all began with the young people.”[1]  A little shocked, I immediately skimmed the pages to see if Marsden anywhere defined “young people.”   He did: “young people” were those from their mid-teens into their twenties.[2]

This revival among young people was not an accident of Edwards’ otherwise adult-focused ministry. Marsden explains how Edwards intentionally pursued the youth: “His railings against their loose behavior, combined with his evident compassion for their souls, began to have some effect.”[3]  Noticing that God was working uniquely among the youth in Northampton, Edwards decided to hold private gatherings for the youth alone.[4]  During such times, he preached sermons that he knew young people would find especially relevant to their situation (e.g., at one such meeting he preached from Song of Songs 6:1).

This focused ministry to the young people of the town was not without results: “By fall the awakening had spread and was transforming the youth culture of Northampton.”[5]  One byproduct of this transformation was that, instead of spending Thursday nights “frolicking” about town, the young people now began meeting weekly in small groups at various homes.  These youth small group meetings were so effective that eventually the adults followed the youths’ example and started their own small group ministry.[6]

What can be said of all this?  I am certainly not suggesting that Edwards was the first “youth pastor.”  Nor am I suggesting that the church of Northampton had a “youth group,” at least certainly not in the way we typically think of youth group. While avoiding the mistake of claiming too much, we can at least say that Edwards viewed the young people of his town as worth the investment of his time and energy.  He recognized that there were unique struggles and opportunities amongst them, and so he met with them in private meetings.  In those meetings, he presented sermons that he knew would be particularly relevant and challenging for them.  So effective were all these efforts that what began as a revival among youth became the awakening of 1731.

Why is this important?

In his excellent article, Dave Wright pointed out that “youth ministry” began with Young Life in the 1940s.[7]  But what this anecdote from Edwards’ ministry teaches us is that while “youth ministry” may have a relatively short history, giants in the history of the Church have valued “ministry to youth.”[8]  Certainly changing cultural realities have created a need for new expressions of youth work in our day, but this does not mean that intentional, focused ministry to young people is a modern phenomena.  

When youth pastors today look for vocational encouragement, they do not only need to look around; they can (and should) look backward.  They can drop the bucket deep into the well of church history and find refreshment for their soul and inspiration for their work.  The 20th-21st centuries are not the first to see pastors intentionally ministering to youth.  Let us be encouraged by Edwards’ rich example and press on, knowing that all our labors are not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Bijan Mirtolooi is an assistant pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. 

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 2003), 150.

[2] Ibid, 151.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 135, 155.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dave Wright, “A Brief History of Youth Ministry” (2 April 2012). Accessed 17 April 2012 at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/04/02/a-brief-history-of-youth-ministry/.

[8] Beyond Edwards, both Martin Luther and John Calvin could be citied as other examples of very focused ministry to young people.  Luther declared, “If ever the church is to flourish again, one must begin by instructing the young,” and then developed his Small Catechism for that purpose.  See Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford: OUP, 2010), 110-112.  Calvin and his colleagues placed a strong emphasis on catechizing the young people of Geneva.  See Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: OUP, 2013), 26ff

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