This week I am leaving full-time youth ministry to return to the realm of government contracting. The decision to make this occupational change was a tough one to make but it was ultimately a decision that was made for my family. In the midst of this transition, I want to reflect and share my thoughts on youth ministry. What are the goals of youth ministry? What is a theological starting point for youth ministry? I will conclude this series of posts with my own philosophy of youth ministry.
My Philosophy For Youth Ministry
“The purpose of youth ministry is to invite both young and old to participate in God’s action.”
Youth ministry is ministry that is specifically designed to be inviting to teenagers, contextualized in such a way that participation in God’s action is not only easily identified, but also understood by the teenage participants. The purpose of youth ministry calls teenage participants and adult leaders to come together in such a way that both parties are not only involved in God’s action but are also invested in the lives of one another.
Leaders and Learners
Youth ministry invites leaders to become place-sharers with the teenage participants. Andrew Root says, “ Those who are called to do youth ministry, those called to be proclaimers of the gospel, must do so from a place of their raw humanity, from their experience of broken dreams and deep regret.”
While it might seem to many adults who want to engage in youth ministry that they have no way to relate to what a teenager is experiencing on a day-to-day basis, all we have to do is think back to our own experiences as teenagers for guidance. How often did we feel that God had abandoned us in the midst of our hormone induced rages? How often did we feel that God was silent as we navigated the halls of junior high and high school? These are all memories we can call upon as we seek to engage teenagers and participate in God’s action with them. As leaders we are simply called to be with the teens we are ministering to.
Often we hear that churches seek to find young adults in their churches who are willing to give their time to work directly with teenagers within the community. While this is a great idea, the fact of the matter is that church communities are seeking volunteers from a demographic that is rapidly running away from the church. My own community has had this mentality. What ends up happening is a young couple visits the church and a well-meaning congregant suggests that the couple would be a great fit to work with the youth, without learning anything about the young couple or their interests.
Adults over the age of thirty or forty (or even fifty!) have more in common with teenagers than they think. And because being a part of youth ministry is a call to be a part of God’s action, those leaders involved in youth ministry do not need to be experts on teenage culture. Adult leaders merely need to be aware of where and how God is working in the lives of teenagers, and then participate in that action as well. Those who are called to work in youth ministry simply need to offer grace to the teenagers who they are in participation with. My own experiences as a teenager reinforce this idea. The youth leaders I felt most connected to, and remain connected with today, were not the twenty-somethings of our church. They were the parents and older adults who simply took an interest in who I was and loved me because I was a child of God.
In my community there are two schools of thought among the adult leadership of the church. One, we should be focusing on the youth who are on our membership rolls. Those youth whose parents are active members of the community. The second school of thought believes that we should be reaching out to the students beyond the doors of our church. The teenagers who attend the high school down the street and have yet to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ or who do not see the gospel of Christ as relevant to their day-to-day life as a teenager.
The answer to which group of teens we should be ministering to is both. We should be reaching out to members of our congregations and those youth in our communities who have yet to find a faith community. We should be ministering to the teens who were raised in the church and have attended Sunday school all their lives, while at the same time reaching out to those teens who have yet to understand what terms like grace and peace can mean for them in a world that tells them the person with the most toys wins and that we should do all that we can to get to the the top.
Content, Methods, and Environment
Content of youth ministry is available online and in print. Every Christian publishing house offers their own catchy flavor of the week youth ministry curriculum. And while it is important to stay up to speed on the cultural influences in the lives of our teenagers, I do not think that youth ministry curriculum should be as reactionary as it seems to be. Rather than reacting, usually after the trend has faded away, to the latest trend in teenage culture, youth ministry content should be embracing those trends as they are emerging.
This means that those who are working in youth ministry should be aware of the latest trends that their teenagers are being drawn towards. This can be done by watching the television shows teens watch, listening (as painful as it might be) to the music teenagers listen to, or attending the events teenagers are being drawn to. Youth workers should utilize their greatest resource: the student who they are ministering too on a weekly basis. Through discussions and genuine interest in the lives of teenagers, youth workers can easily determine what trends are currently influencing the their teenagers.
The methods of building a youth ministry that meets the purpose of being apart of God’s action in the lives of teenagers can seem like a daunting task, and in fact it is. Building a youth ministry that will sustain the long haul, and not be an overnight success that dies out after the excitement of a new ministry fades away, is task that must be undertaken by those who are committed to being a part of the ministry for the long haul.
Mark DeVries lays out what most churches do not know about youth ministry and how to make youth ministry sustainable in his book Sustainable Youth Ministry. This book should serve as a blueprint for any church looking to establish a youth ministry setting that engages youth in the present but is also structured in such a way that the ministry will reach youth in the years to come.
DeVries lays out ways of planning and structuring youth ministry but all of that is for nothing if the climate of the church is such that the entire church community is invested in the future of youth ministry within their community. If the climate of the community is not open to investing in youth ministry or is “toxic”, any work done by volunteers or paid staff can seem more like chores and ministry activities. The environment of the church must be such that the leadership, both lay and professional, are committed to not only investing monetary resources, but also investing their time in the youth ministry they are seeking to create. When leadership creates a welcoming climate for ministry, that attitude will trickle down throughout the community.
Being a part of the Methodist church, as well as part of a military community, systematic number counting is the favored evaluation method for the community I currently serve. The problem with this evaluation method is that often a ministry is cut or eliminated before it is given a chance to grow due to a lack of numbers. Playing the numbers game in youth ministry can be a dangerous evaluation method.
It has been my experience that the topic of numbers is a popular topic among those who are professional youth workers. For many communities, the focus placed on numbers is directly tied to the question of funding. How much money should we invest in our youth ministry? Doug Fields puts it this way: “Many church leaders come from the marketplace, and they want to know if they’re getting “bang for their buck.”
It would make more sense to focus on healthy numbers instead of the big numbers most people want to see. How many kids have we made contact with this week? How many teenagers have chosen to give their lives to Christ and accept the call placed upon them when they were baptized as infants? What if churches in general used these metrics for determining success instead of measuring the number of people who show up for an event? I think that focus on positive evaluation, rather than numbers for the sake of numbers would change the way churches look at their youth ministries and the way churches look at their ministries in general.
 Root, Andrew. Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. , pg. 38
 Root, Andrew. Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. , pg. 47
 “Too often, even the most compelling vision is thwarted because, in spite of all the right structures being in place, little to no attention has been given to the climate.” DeVries, pg. 79.
 DeVries, pg. 80.
 Fields, pg. 27.