Rooted is excited to continue our partnership with The Gospel Coalition blog for a series on the state of youth ministry during the month of April. Thanks to Collin Hansen of TGC for permission in reprinting below (originally posted here, here, here, and here.
So much of today’s thinking in youth ministry is different than it was 20 years ago. Eating goldfish, iPod incentives, fog machines, and even chubby bunny are being reconsidered as the profession of youth ministry grows up. While it’s easy to find a local youth group that still practices some of these bygone techniques, more and more ministries are changing. The important question coming out of this new era of thought is a simple one: Why does youth ministry exist?
Two thousand years ago, Jewish children had a clear path to adulthood that included youth ministry. The local synagogue would hire a rabbi whose primary role was educating children. Starting at age 4 or 5 (Beth Sefer) children would learn, read, write, and memorize the Torah. At age 10, having memorized the Torah, children would either spend more time at home learning the family trade or move towards the path of the rabbi. Either path led to an eventual acknowledgment of adulthood at age 30 for men. Culture considered the time in between the period in preparation for adulthood, and the synagogue was invested in that stage of life.
It’s doubtful that ancient rabbis ate live fish to encourage their students. It’s possible, though unlikely, that they stuffed as many honey-coated wafers in their mouths as possible to prove their rabbinic mastery. What seems clear is that youth ministry existed long before Young Life. Understanding this paradigm adds a bit of depth to the popular thinking that parents should be the only (not primary) spiritual directors for children.
Into the Present
Present-day youth ministry hardly resembles its ancient roots. Much of the discipleship we see modeled by Jesus in the Bible has been forsaken in the modern church. Consumeristic, attractional models of the church have flourished in Western culture. Youth ministry is also at least partly responsible for the most biblically illiterate, unchurched generation of Americans. Fewer and fewer young adults return to the church after they leave home. Caught in that paradigm, very few of us would belabor the end of youth ministry.
Just as it was in Jesus’ day, young adults (and their parents) need help. The church would be suicidal to abandon a generation based on the failing, outdated model of youth ministry. I see several necessities for the church today.
1. Youth ministry exists because it is needed.
The needs of adolescents are not contested by many of the best minds in the church and psychology. Robert Epstein in Teen 2.0 makes a strong case for cultivating this generation. “Young people should be extended full adult rights and responsibilities in each of a number of different areas as soon as they can demonstrate appropriate competence in each area.” The church, if it wants spiritual depth, must reach out to teenagers and help them mature in their faith.
2. What worked in the past can work today.
Jesus modeled one of the best practices for the church. His discipleship did not depend on the latest book, the newest game, or the best icebreaker. Instead, his model relied on the spiritual health of the leader, and his willingness to spend time investing himself, his love, and his truth in them.
3. Resistance is futile.
The church in its current iteration resists change. Youth pastors trying to make changes for too many years usually have met resistance from church leaders. Still, newer practices in youth ministry are driving efforts to foster spiritual maturity, helping church leaders see the benefit of youth ministry that makes disciples.
Where Does This Leave the Church?
Youth ministry is a cultural phenomenon, but that does not negate its usefulness. Youth ministry will continue to evolve, but it will be needed as long as young people and their families struggle with bringing them fully into adulthood and spiritual maturity.
Paul Martin pastors youth and youth workers in Birmingham, Alabama. His passion for seeing transformation in the lives of believers spans two decades and has existed in local churches, youth ministry magazines like the Youth Worker Journal and Immerse, and coaching programs like YMCP. His blog contemplates the growing need for investing the kingdom in the lives of teens and those who work with them. Paul serves as a member of the steering committee for Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry.