The Thrills and Spills of Youth Ministry Islands

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There’s hardly anything more thrilling for a teenager than a day at a theme park with their buddies. What teenager doesn’t like the idea of meeting up with his friends, carrying a few extra bucks in his pocket, and spending an entire summer day riding every roller coaster imaginable while eating ice cream and hot dogs and waxing eloquent on his latest fantasy football draft, cool video game, and annoying teacher.

It would be hard to deny that an experience like this isn’t “fun” for the average teenager. It would also be hard to deny that most parents probably don’t get as excited about all day encounters with hot dogs and roller coasters. Therefore, many conclude that sending a teenager off to a thrill park is a win/win situation for both their teenage child and themselves.

The thrill park is a good metaphor for the way that many youth ministries work within the church itself. I like to call a youth ministry that operates in this way, Youth Ministry Island.

Kids love to go to Youth Ministry Island because it’s a place just for them. It’s led by people barely older than them, its full of people their own age, its jam packed with activities geared specifically to their unique interests, and many parents are content to just drop them off at the gate and come back later to pick them up as long as the basic parameters of safety and security are in place.

Over the years as a pastor I have witnessed a lot of youth ministries like this. And to be perfectly honest, some of these ministries have been very meaningful in the lives of some students. They are good at packaging bible studies so kids can understand them; they are excellent at having clean fun; they take great trips; and they provide what amounts to being excellent big brothers and sisters to teens who crave the attention of people older than them. And most undeniably, the twenty-somethings that run them are way cooler than any parent or middle-aged volunteer could ever dream to be.

So, what’s wrong with Youth Ministry Island?

Unfortunately, the negative impact of this kind of youth ministry takes time to see. But in a nutshell, these specialized ministry islands don’t expose kids to older adults in the church, subconsciously undermine a teenager’s tolerances for tradition, create impossible expectations for regular preachers to reach teens, sideline parents in the cooperative discipleship venture, and make regular church seem boring in comparison. As a result, churches are forced to build other age-graded islands (i.e. young adult island, millennial island, etc.) or, risk losing the next generation altogether.

I might contend that the disturbing statistic¹ that only 3 out of 10 students stays committed to the church is very closely related to this way of doing youth ministry.

Unfortunately, this mindset serves to only deepen the rampant individualism and selfishness that is already epidemic in the consumeristic western church. Most tragically, this rampant consumerism breeds a spiritual mindset that undermines the generational interdependence once fundamental to the progress of the Christian church.

One such place where we read about this corporate and intergenerational interdependence is in Titus 2 where Paul, speaking to a young pastor on the island of Crete, writes:

1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.

Can there be any other way to read this passage than to see that the apostles fully expected the churches they planted to be intergenerational and that it was good and right for the old and young to mix together as much as possible?

The greatest barrier to fulfilling this vision is the generational pride that pervades the church at every level, but that is most vividly learned and entrenched in the teenage years.

Now, to be clear, I am not an advocate of the idea that there should be no such thing as youth ministry or young adult ministry or even senior citizen’s ministry. To rob a generation of opportunities to fellowship closely with people like them is both impossible and unwise. However, even when there are occasions to huddle with people who are close to our stage of life, we must actively cultivate opportunities to cross-pollinate generationally.

To press my metaphor, you can still have Youth Ministry Island with the kinds of attractions that teenagers might like, but these islands need to be very close to shore (closely linked to the church’s other ministries), connected to the mainland by a very wide and well-lit two-way causeway (getting adults into the youth ministry as volunteers, and youth into children’s and adult ministries as volunteers), and staffed with a range of people from every possible generation (including parents and older adult members of the congregation).

 

¹Ed Stetzer, “Dropouts and Disciples: How Many Students Are Really Leaving the Church?,” The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer, n.d., http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html.

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