Youth Ministry in the Church Family

Originally published October 2000.

High school life is really a bubble.  It’s own world tucked away from the real world.  It is an entire existence, an entire culture, that has little to do with real life. Yes, it is all about preparing adolescents for adulthood but the culture, or subculture, has overtaken.  Watch any sophomore learn and strain to learn a geometic formula, struggle to get that earned C, and never have a use for it again.  Or watch a junior girl spend hours (and too much money) for a prom date with a guy she's "just friends" with only to have no conversation at dinner and a few dances at the prom and think this was a grown up experience.  Or checkout the friends they have and are loyal to, often to the point of breaking the law, but who do not become groomsmen and bridesmaids at their weddings.

True, teens do experience real life.  Pregnancies, addictions and empty homes are experiences all to real to teens.  So real they affect them for the rest of their lives.  The affects are so large because that bubble burst.

Bubbles are good for protection.  A safe environment to learn that geometric formula just in case its use ever comes up in the future.  A safe environment to ease into adulthood responsibility.  But life, adolescent life, shouldn't always be in a bubble.

Our youth ministries have turned into bubbles also.  We too have been overcome by this subculture and are keeping our youth in this bubble.    We have our  youth programs, youth rooms, and most currently, some churches are even running their own youth worship services.  With our unabandoned love for teens, the influence, and our draw to the subculture, are you running your youth ministry in a bubble?

First here is a little, brief history on how you and I got our youth ministry positions in churches.  Fifty years ago Young Life and Youth for Christ (back when Billy Graham was involved) began holding evangelistic rallies.  Bible quizzing, zany games, dynamic speakers, contemporary music, and safe entertainment for teens were all started here.  Similar to what you are doing now, huh?  Soon the "church" wanted a part of this movement and began hiring Young Life and Youth for Christ leaders to be youth pastors.  Now youth ministry  has grown so much that we have our own subculture, commerce market, and slanguage.

Back in the day, Young Life and Youth for Christ were very evangelistic (as they still strive to be).   Church youth ministry has been (and should be) more discipleship.  Bringing the good things from the YL and YFC movement into the church should have brought it into the "church family."  This is what the church offers best. But are our youth ministries like a bubble separate from the church family?

Youth ministry needs to be a part of the church family.  If you have studied postmodernity at all, you know that postmodern youth have a large need for community.  Your youth group certainly does provide community.  But teens also know how two-faced teens are because they are also.  Teens need community larger than their peer group.  You and your volunteer leaders (if you have any!) are not enough.  There is a ready-made community in the church family.  As author and youth ministry professor Mark Senter wrote, “In the transient society of the 21st century, young people will either nurture and be nurtured by intergenerational bonds or they will suffer through Bart-Simpson-like existence.”  Is your youth ministry in a Bart-Simpson-like bubble?

I’ve heard other ministers describe youth ministries as "orphaning structures" because youth graduate from youth programs without being connected to the church family.  Why do they disappear after graduation?  It is not because the church has a weak college and career program.  It is because the now young adult’s only connection to the church has been outgrown.

Keeping youth ministry in this bubble may be why of all the pastoral staff positions, we get the least respect.  Hmm...

Barna Research Group did a large study on teens and their faith.  When teens were asked who has “a lot of influence” over their lives, parents came in at 78 percent.  Friends was the next closest at 51 percent.  That is a large difference. Can you guess where church pastors and priests came in?  This will hurt our egos.  It was 27 percent.

Barna goes on to say, “Many of the church leaders talk about the importance of the family, but in practice they have written off the family as an agency of spiritual influence.  Their assumption is that if the family (including teenagers) is going to be influenced, it is the organized church that will do the influencing, primarily through its events--worship services, classes, special events, etc.  This philosophy causes the impetus behind youth ministry to be fixing what is broken--that is, to substitute the efforts of the church for those of parents since most of the latter do not provide the spiritual direction and accountability that their children need.  But there is a procedural problem here: kids take their cues from their family, not from their youth ministers.  God’s plan was for the church to support the family, and for the family to be the front-line of ministry within the home.  Teenagers may glean some truths and principles from youth leaders, but the greatest influence in their lives will remain their parents."  Then Barna asks the question, "What are youth ministries doing to serve families rather than usurp them?"   Are you usurping the role of the parent?  I know you would never purposely do it.  But examine your program, examine your attitude and speech.  Have you done this?  (Guilty here.)

Our teens come to us from families.  All kinds of dysfunctional families that are still families.   Why don’t we try to influence the most important influence on a teen’s life?  Hmmm...

Have you ever had a parent drop off his/her child and expect you to “fix” him/her?  They expect you to undo all the damage they had done in one night or three years?  That is a frustration of youth workers.  But have we brought that upon ourselves by how we run our youth programs?

Just a side reminder:  We do not have the authority over the parent, any parent, even bad parents (barring legal situations we may have to get involved with).

Mark Senter foresees generational youth ministry working this way.  He stresses these are just ideas.  “In most cases the youth minister becomes the change agent to guide the faith community to welcome the faith journey of adolescents as essential to the welfare of the entire fellowship of believers.  Christian youth and seekers will be viewed as vital to the spiritual health of adults and children alike.  Young people will be full and equal participants in shaping worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, and service opportunities.  At one extreme will be the youth pastor who stays long enough to re-educate and re-invent the church as a loving intergenerational fellowship.  On the other extreme is the youth pastor who becomes a senior pastor with the primary purpose of building a church that models the process of intergenerational spiritual discovery.”  I like that thought of welcoming the faith journey of adolescents as essential to the welfare of the entire fellowship of believers.  Not off in a youth room somewhere.

If this excites you, you need to do some more reading about it.  Some great books have been written which you need to get: Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark Devries and The Youthworkers Handbook to Family Ministry by Chap Clark.

I envision in practics from my angle.  Here are some ideas free to be stolen.

  • Parenting classes from you.  You may not be a parent yet but you know what parents should not do--and are doing right--and you hear how the youth react to their parents.  That is all valuable information and only you have it.  You need to disperse it.  The following are some parent hot buttons that you can address:  boundary setting, faith-nurturing skills, heritage leaving, cultural worries, long-term parenting impact, future planning.  Think about offering this during the Sunday school hour.
  • Intergenerational activities. Put together a parent panel for your youth to see how other parents act.  Try the Newlywed Game (renamed the Parenting Game) to make it fun.  Plan Sunday morning services designed for teenagers, not for Builders (those over 50).  So what if the Builders are the tithers.  The Builders will see what they are investing into--hopefully.  Once a month turn your youth service into an intergenerational service.  Invite the adults to what you do on a regular basis.  The adults are invited in to be a part of the youth ministry--and be blessed besides.  (And see if your funding goes up.)
  • Regularly schedule a 3 x 4 Generation night.  Bring the parents and youth together to cover a topic like dating or curfew.  You will need to write up questions that will bring out opinion and discussion.  Set up tables for four. For the first round, it is four youth at a table and four parents at a table. The questions then are discussed and ideas and opinions are bounced off of the peers thus putting into words how they feel on the subject.  For the second round, switch to two parents with two youth, not families.  The questions are discussed again but now the parents get to hear the youth’s point of view and the youth get to hear the parent’s point of view.  For the third and final round, switch so the parents with their children come together to come up with their own family’s conclusions based on all this input and communication.  Throw in a covered-dish/pot luck dinner.