In Support of a Modified Traditional Approach to Youth Ministry

By Mark Johannesen

For as critical as some critics have been of youth ministry because they see it as something that disassembles the church and works against the ministry of the church I think it must also be said that youth ministries can offer something incredibly valuable at the very same time.

The critic’s points zero in on the concept that youth groups often present a compartmentalized isolating life in the church which results in students failing to get into the whole church after graduation. And to be frank, the observation that 50-70% of graduates leave the church is something not to ignore. At the same time, totally discarding the value of the traditional understanding of youth ministry I believe is not the answer.

Right now trustee and elder boards are considering 2014 budgets and if they had their ears to the ground to all of the negative conversations they might be inclined to simply conclude that they are wasting money in staffing and program related costs that appear in church budgets because of youth ministry.

So, let’s be as honest about this as we can.
Youth groups do:
1. Play games and they do have lots of fun an that’s not a bad thing at all
2. They offer safe havens for teens to be and grow
3. They often teach and model service driven experiences and missions trips
4. They often develop new leaders inside the church
5. Youth groups do make a mess and eat lots of junk food

6. They tend to draw students in whose families have no connection to a church in addition to those students whose families attend the church

And we could go on and on with more and more things that define our youth groups.

Well….a few years back Scott Brown offered a very tainted documentary on the negatives related to the compartmentalization that occurs as a result of what the typical youth ministry does. (See also the book “A Weed in the Church” for similar ideas.)

And while yes, there are some fair concerns, their work was incredibly slanted and it had a rigged objective with predetermined conclusions presented in a way that suggested that they hadn’t actually come to any conclusions but wanted the readers affirmation of them.

As I react to the accusation of compartmentalization and the church I can’t help but think of all of the positives that happen in traditional youth ministries.

Positives like:
1. Students are invited to hear God’s word in an age appropriate and comfortable setting
2. Students who might never enter into the doors of the church are coming into the church
3. Students often are given opportunities to worship, pray and serve with their peers
4. In youth groups that have leadership teams, significant intergenerational relationships are being built
5. Students who come to our youth groups from unchurched homes and then often bring friends and siblings who are unchurched as well

6. As we get to know unchurched students in creates connections to their families that we might not have had

We could make a longer list than this quite easily but you get the point I hope. The traditional model of youth ministry goes well beyond games and fun and is often one of the more evangelistic aspects of our churches.

I realize that evangelism happens in the church through a variety of means but ministry to teens has been one of the most powerful evangelistic strengths in many churches. Studies have shown that more people come to Christ in their teen and youth years than at any other time. The Barna Group in 2004 said that 90% of conversions happen before age 19. (And yes, I just cited a 10 year old study) Doesn’t that alone speak to the significance of ministry to teens and children?

And from an evaluation-esque perspective the answer of that previous question doesn’t get us off the hook from having to own up to the results that we see of the high number of students who leave the church. We do need to own up to the realities that 60 plus percent do leave the church, but there are three realities that speak to me and encourage me:

1. Of those who leave, 50% do come back later in life (which is better than not coming back ever)
2. I would much rather have someone hear the gospel and seem disinterested in it later than to not have them hear the gospel at all because I rest in knowing that I get to be used to plant and care for that “seed” but someone else “watered” it and that God made it grow

3. Studies have shown that conversion can on average take 25 points of contact with Christians so if that is the case, than the students we work with are getting some of those points of contact with us. If conversion could be seen as a moving closer to Christ process and we could see the big picture timeline then perhaps what we are seeing of students leaving the church is actually not that, but a part of that bigger process.

On top of that….here are two assumptions that I have:
1. Evangelism is often relational and it is often the fruit of some sort of intentional work

2.Connecting people to the church often happens or begins to happen through an age appropriate ministry or through an attractive event.

So what can we do now?

Well….I have two ideas that I’m running with:
1. If those are accurate and we care about evangelism then we should care about continuing to present youth ministry in some of the traditional forms.

2. At the same time, the critiques to the traditional youth ministry model have some validity and perhaps they can assist is in strengthening what we do.

In light of all that, I’ll offer the following questions for further discussion:
1. What would a mission statement for your youth ministry do to it your ministry if it were the following? – The goal of our youth ministry is to graduate students out of our youth ministry and into the larger church family
2. If you could name the top three character traits of your youth ministry, what would they be? What do they say about your ministry to students?

3. Is age appropriate ministry as significant as intergenerational ministry? Is one more or less biblical than the other?

Blessings to you and the ministries and students you work with and I hope and pray that the work that you are a part of loves the ministry that is happening to the teens in your circles and does as much as it can to sustain and support that work.

Rev. Mark Johannesen is pastor at Word of Life Lutheran Brethren Church in LeSueur, Minnesota.


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