Connecting Emerging Churches with Your Youth Ministry
An Interview with Ryan Bolger
Photo by Jessica Castro
“I read the Gospels over and over. Nothing I was doing on Sunday was what I thought Jesus would be doing if he were here.” 1
This provocative statement by a church leader in Las Vegas captures much of the conviction and passion that lies behind the spirit of the growing number of emerging churches that are gaining momentum in both in the U.S. and internationally. 2 Yet as with most new ministry movements, the more new questions that are addressed, the more new questions arise.
Like, what is it that makes a church an “emerging church?”
How can emerging churches define themselves less by what they are theologically and practically moving away from, and more by what they are moving towards?
And are emerging churches a “trend” that will soon be outgrown, or a new way of life and church that is here to stay (at least for a while)?
In order to answer these and other important questions about emerging churches, two Fuller Seminary faculty members, Dr. Eddie Gibbs and Dr. Ryan Bolger, spent the last five years interacting with over 40 churches in the United States and over 40 churches in the United Kingdom. By using a combination of interviews, observations, and document analysis, they attempted to discover why these churches’ versions of the incarnation are appealing to the currently churched, the previously churched, and the unchurched alike. 3
Gibbs’ and Bolger’s new book, Emerging Churches, describes the way these communities are using the Bible as the guide for their journey and translating God’s redemptive story into vibrant paths for postmodern travelers. Given the great interest this book has created in the Christian leadership community, FYI interviewed Ryan to try to understand how their research connects to the dynamics of both youth culture and youth ministry. While youth ministry was not a primary focus of their investigation, their insights about best practices in emerging churches have much to add to the growing conversation about not only the present state of youth ministry, but the best hope for its future as well.
How has youth ministry influenced emerging churches and emerging church culture?
What many leaders and youth workers don’t realize is that most of the leaders in emerging churches came out of youth ministry. A typical scenario we found again and again is that someone who spent eight or ten years as a youth minister in their 20’s wanted to start something on their own, and that something ended up being an emerging ministry. Sometimes they have had a very positive relationship with the church as a youth worker and are looking to do the same sort of ministry beyond just teenagers. They want to take the very best they experienced in youth ministry, like hospitality to others and creative ministry expressions, and extend that to a congregational life. Other times, they were fairly disillusioned with the church and were looking to do something different.
Definitions of “emerging churches” abound these days. What do you and Eddie Gibbs mean by an “emerging church?”
After studying over 80 churches, our best description of an emerging church is a community that focuses on three core practices: identifying with the life of Jesus, transforming secular space, and living as community. These three core practices tend to be expressed in six other values: welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers, creating as created beings, leading as a body, and taking part in spiritual activities.
These emerging churches are generally smaller networks or communities that are very organic, somewhat like house churches. They are usually comprised of 30-40 people who view themselves as some sort of “family.”
Some of these “families” network with other similar sized churches and meet together periodically. We heard a lot of stories about smaller communities of 30-40 people who gather together to form a congregation of 500-1000 people every two to four weeks.
In the midst of these communities of 30-40 people, what does youth ministry look like?
There are a few convictions about youth ministry that emerging leaders seem to share. At the top of that list would be a value of intergenerational life and ministry as opposed to the fragmentation or separation of ministries into various age groups. So in these churches there is generally no “youth pastor” who focuses on just teenagers. Having said that, some church networks are experimenting with having a “youth pastor” for the larger network of 500-1000 people, but that’s a pretty new development.
Your blog suggested that the age of the youth ministry professional is “disappearing.” 4 Is that connected to this value of intergenerational life instead of ministry that is segregated by age groups?
Yes, but it’s more than just that. We’ve found that ALL pastoral roles are being re-assessed in emerging churches – not just youth pastors. The roles of senior pastors, worship leaders, and children’s pastors are all being questioned. Instead of a church having set assumptions about who should be “hired” and “what” they should do, it’s up to the community to determine what we need and what we’re going to do, and whether or not the niche role of a “youth pastor” fits into that plan. It’s a much more fluid church structure.
Some readers might be able to swallow the idea of no single “youth pastor” for a community, but still might wonder how the unique needs of 13 and 18 year-olds are met in the midst of the intergenerational gatherings.
And that’s a valid concern. One of the leaders we interviewed commented, “No one wants to talk about masturbation with grandma in the room.”
Keep in mind that in a community of 30-40 people, there are probably only 5-8 teenagers. We found many churches had established small groups just for those teenagers. But what separated the churches we studied from other more typical ways of doing church is that “church” is still very much with grandma and grandpa.
So the average teenager is a part of three groups then?
Yes, that’s often the case. A teenager will be part of a small group that is comprised of mainly teenagers and is the most intimate setting. The gathering of 30-40 people is “church” and is like an extended family. And if that church is networked with other churches, then those 500-1000 people gather for regular celebrations.
A lot of non-emerging churches would say they do that also though: they have a youth ministry small group of 5-8 people, a youth group meeting of those small groups, and then a larger celebration with the entire church.
The numbers of people gathered might be the same, but the main difference is in that medium-sized gathering. In typical youth ministries, it’s mostly kids with a smattering of adult volunteers. In emerging churches, that gathering is a blend of all ages.
How are emerging churches preventing kids from feeling lost in the midst of this intergenerational emphasis?
Typically, the community shares responsibility for their youth. Hopefully, there are a handful of adults who feel a special calling or burden to mentor and support those kids. But we’ve had such dramatic cultural changes that in order for older people to understand younger people, they need to learn cross-cultural ministry principles and skills.
Learning a culture is really an odd thing for westerners because we’ve had such static cultures. If we don’t learn enough about youth culture to understand what kids do that might seem heretical to an older person is actually a valid expression of those kids’ faith, then we’ll perpetuate what’s often happened in youth ministry: kids will have a “church life” that is separate from their life where they gain meaning. That’s what’s happened with missionaries’ relationships with new believers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. If the faith is not communicated in a way that resonates with the culture, believers end up with bifurcated lives.
This theme of bridging cultures in emerging churches isn’t just an issue for teenagers and adults. Some people have accused emerging churches of being too homogeneous, and at times that’s probably true. In the healthy communities we observed, that smaller group of 5-8 people is where you share life with people who are very much like you, and that larger group of 30-40 is where you learn to love people who are very, very different.
So far we’ve talked mostly about the priority of intergenerational relationships. What are some other common themes in emerging churches when it comes to youth ministry?
They tend to inherently “get” the importance of relational ministry – both in terms of building relationships with those already in their community as well as welcoming outsiders and strangers.
They are also trying to help kids understand and interact with pop culture. Emerging churches are trying to overcome the typical “secular/sacred dualism” approach to culture that labels some (usually most) of culture as “bad” and the rest as “OK” or maybe even “good.” Instead of being “anti-pop culture,” they tend to try to figure out how to express the gospel within that culture.
These churches are much more likely to embrace pop culture and then invite some sages of the faith in their midst to help kids exegete it and critique it. The hope is that by moving kids beyond these more simplistic dualisms, when they graduate and go off to college, they aren’t as shocked and disillusioned because they are more intellectually and spiritually prepared.
What types of leadership roles do kids play within their churches?
Some of the churches we observed weren’t doing much to develop kids’ leadership. In those that were more effective, a key shift was to replace the idea that we need to do ministry “for” kids with the idea that we do ministry “with” them.
The way to do ministry “with” kids was generally to spend time listening to them before trying to “develop” anything. That resonates with the work of one of our colleagues at Fuller who’s an anthropologist, Dr. Dan Shaw. In his cross-cultural work and teaching, he recommends going to a new culture and listening to their stories for three years before saying anything, especially anything critical.
After these leaders spend enough time listening, then they seemed to be in a better position to come alongside kids and facilitate students’ creative ministry expressions not from “above,” but from “below.” Especially in the U.K., we saw examples of teenagers and 20-somethings who were really functioning as youth pastors themselves. The adult mentors were more responsible for the discipleship of the different adult and student leaders, but the kids were responsible for the content of the actual meetings.
In the last decade, some have criticized ministries who emphasize that type of student leadership with adults more in the background as contributing to yet another type of abandonment that kids experience.
Don’t get me wrong. The adults were heavily involved. The difference was that they practiced more of a “high accountability, low control” strategy. Adult leaders would hold kids accountable for basic issues of discipleship and ministry, but the ministry forms and programs were largely up to the kids. My guess is that the youth workers’ presence was much more significant in those smaller group discussions than in the larger group outreaches. Again, this was a dynamic we observed more in the U.K. than in America.
What would you say to those who read either your book or this article and think to themselves, “Sounds great, but I’d get fired if I tried this in my own setting”?
I’d encourage youth workers who feel called to stay in settings that maybe aren’t so open to new ideas to avoid the sacred cows. If Sunday night service is set in stone, then keep doing a Sunday night service but experiment in some other areas in which there’s more freedom. Maybe no one really watches over what you do in small groups on Tuesdays. Go for things that can quietly subvert past practices and look to create these sorts of communities that are there for each other in Biblical, hospitable, and generous ways.
1. If you’re like most youth pastors, you aren’t new to the emerging church conversation. How do these thoughts from Ryan interact with your previous ideas about youth ministry and the emerging church? What new questions are stirring?
2. The idea of intergenerational ministry and gatherings is not new, but it seems that many churches talk about it more than they actually do it. What are you doing now that brings about authentic intergenerational community? What else might you want to incorporate that could help your kids worship and share life with “grandmas and grandpas?” What would you lose by doing that? What would you gain?
3. How comfortable do you feel with the idea of kids taking on ministry leadership? How is that reflected in your ministry currently?
4. What would you like to do in order to help your kids move past the “sacred/secular” dualism that Ryan discusses?
5. Do you agree with the idea that the era of the youth ministry professional is “disappearing?” Why or why not?