Imagining a new theology of youth ministry for the church
Photo by Emily Shearing
A story of two youth ministries
Manny’s church was really proud of him. As a youth pastor, not only had he developed a top-notch youth ministry program, but he had also recruited a stellar team of adult volunteers. As a result, a number of kids from the community had become involved in Manny’s youth group—enough of a number that the church was noticing. The elders even approached Manny about expanding the youth facilities to better accommodate the burgeoning ministry, and within a few years they had their own youth center across the church property from the main building. Manny loved it, the kids loved it, and the whole church seemed pretty happy with the arrangement. The problems began surfacing when students graduated from high school and had to figure out how to “graduate” from the only church they had known: Manny’s youth ministry.
Desiree’s church was proud of her, too. A parent of two teenagers, Desiree was charged with the role of volunteer youth director for her congregation. The handful of kids began meeting in Desiree’s home once a month, and she invited (okay, sometimes pleaded with) other adults in the congregation to become mentors for students. Desiree also worked to get youth more involved in Sunday morning worship services and to serve in the ministry teams of the church. Before long, the church developed a new awareness of the teenagers in their midst as kids began to sing alongside adults in the choir, serve alongside them in the kitchen and community, and even teach Sunday School classes for younger children. The problems began surfacing when so many other parents and adults got involved in their lives that the students began feeling like they were constantly being “watched”. Students expressed frustration that they didn’t feel like they had their own time and space to be with each other and to talk about their doubts, fears, and struggles.
While you may not identify directly with either Manny or Desiree, most youth ministries tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes. Youth are rarely either completely isolated from the rest of the church or totally immersed in the congregation; instead, churches often lean towards one side of this continuum or another.
Somewhere in the middle of the continuum is what our colleague Chap Clark often refers to as “assimilation”—weaving students into the intergenerational life of the church as they grow to be mature disciples of Jesus Christ 1. While you may or may not have thought much about where your church’s ministry might stand on this continuum, we don’t think you can really address this question without wrestling with your ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology” is simply how we think about “church”, centered in how we perceive God to be unveiling and developing God’s kingdom through God’s people.
Getting to the point, the way we think about church profoundly shapes the way we do youth ministry. So let’s first take a look at some of the common images used to describe the church, then explore how our primary images and metaphors for church influence our ministries.
We each hold a particular view of “church” that permeates our lives and ministries, with each view creating particular questions, opportunities and challenges. In the original Greek the New Testament writers used in the first century, the word for church is ekklesia, meaning literally “called out from” or “the called-out ones”. So to think of a church as merely a “building” runs counter to the New Testament description of church 2. Yet the majority of Christians in America would probably define church as a place they go, not a people of whom they are a part.
The writers of the New Testament associated the new Christian community with the people who were called out of the wilderness to be God’s special covenant people. Similarly, evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz describes the nature of the ekklesia as a combination of three primary elements: covenant relationship, sign of the kingdom, and special community 3. Because of Christ, the new ekklesia is called to live corporately as a radical witness to Jesus’ reign. So nothing about the church necessitates or is limited to a building, much less a youth center.
Some of our congregations speak of the church primarily as the “body of Christ” as Paul described 4, in which all of us function as parts of Christ’s body in our communities and across the world. In this metaphor everyone has a place, and that place is marked by our service to the rest of the Body.
Others draw instead on the mystic image of the church as Christ’s bride 5, being prepared for the coming day of marriage to the Groom who both awaits us and is purifying us for Himself. Looking ahead, the church waits in anticipation for the wedding feast of the Lamb described in Revelation.
Other images particularly relevant to our questions about the meaning of church relate to a church’s size. Does the church necessitate a large group of believers, or can the church be simply the presence of “two or more” gathered in Jesus’ name 6, ushering the presence of Christ into our midst? How big is too big—are megachurches or house churches really churches at all, or do both miss the point?
Two recent theologians associated with Fuller Seminary have attempted to bring some clarity and unity to these images by suggesting possible central metaphors. First, Ray Anderson calls out the importance of the church as the Body of Christ in service to the world:
The church as community is more than a social entity; it is the corporate body of Jesus Christ. It is a presentation of his own personhood, his own service (latreia) as the Son to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Thus latreia is the root paradigm of community. 7
Further, Miroslav Volf centers the identity of the church in the persons of the Trinity. According to this model, the church is grounded in the kingdom of God coming in the person of Jesus, who lives in interdependent community with the Father and Holy Spirit. 8 The very nature of the church, then, is not individualistic or private, but communal and public, intimately tied to the identity of the Godhead. The church is marked by this unity 9, and mysteriously all local expressions of church are somehow connected by a larger identity we share as the common church. We are the people of God who follow Jesus Christ.
Metaphors matter: The family of God
10 These metaphors are just a sampling in order to show the variety of potential metaphors for the church. Believe it or not, the metaphor we choose to be a primary or controlling image for our view of church has significant impact on what happens in student ministry.
Theologian-and-psychologist team Ray Anderson and Dennis Guernsey suggest a helpful paradigm for a theology of church using the metaphor of “the family of God.” They lay a framework for this image with two foundational notions, the first of which is that God’s covenant with humanity, beginning with Israel, establishes a precedent of covenant relationship for all of God’s people. 11 God’s covenants are based on God’s particular choice of and faithfulness to a people. God is committed to God’s people, even when they do not live up to their end of the deal. Our relationships as Christians are covenantal; we are called to remain completely committed to God and other Christians.
A covenant does not work like a contract. As Diana Garland describes in Family Ministry, “A covenant is an unconditional relationship; it depends on a ‘leap of faith’ in which members choose the relationship whether or not the other will or is able to deliver what is hoped for.” 12 Just as God is committed to us in covenant, so too we commit ourselves in covenant to one another.
Covenant and family are two images central to the biblical narrative of God’s interaction with humanity. In Genesis 12:2-3, God covenants with Abraham that he will be the father of a great family, a people called to be God’s own. Jesus shockingly turns the tables in John 3 when he says that the new covenantal family no longer requires this genetic identification with Abraham, but rather a new birth into a new type of family. In Mark 3:34-35, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to claim him, and he proclaims that his family members are those who do the will of God—Jesus calls his own family and those who would be his family to a life of discipleship. So in a sense we can think of the church as family.
Yet as we think of the church as a family, the notion of covenant defies the idea that we have simply chosen to become family to one another. The church is not merely a group of members who agree to attempt to be extra nice to each other and call it “family” when they succeed. “It will be all too easy to assume that family life as the koinonia [fellowship] of the Body of Christ is identical with the social life of its members. It is not.” 13 Understanding our church family in terms of adoption further clarifies this point. Simply put, God has chosen us to be his children. Just as biological siblings did not choose their brothers or sisters, we do not choose our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, a covenant understanding recognizes that they (and we) are family.
The second foundation for Anderson and Guernsey’s theology of family is that of the parent-child relationship. Our human, parent-child relationships image the Fatherhood of God. In the midst of using masculine terminology, the authors are very clear that both mother and father are to imitate the parenting of God. It is not the job of earthly fathers alone, but rather of both parents, to reflect God’s parental attributes in their relationships with their children. 14
Given this, it is tempting to think that our role as a church family is to be the surrogate parents for kids who seem to need more parenting. But this isn’t our calling either. 15 Our calling as a church family is rooted in the family God has established. In this family, we are all adopted as God’s children (c.f. Rom 8:15-17; Gal 3:26-4:7). That makes each of us a brother or sister to all other believers. Guernsey coins a specific term for our new way of thinking about the way we become family with other Christians: “siblial” relationships 16. A “sib”, he notes, is a group that shares a common ancestor. As children of God, we best understand who we are to each other as “sib”.
So at the crux of it, we’re invited to think of the church as a “family of families.” On the one hand, we are all family to one another—siblings, actually. On the other hand, we are established in biological parent-child relationships that God wove into the design of creation. We keep this family, too. So in the church we become a family of families. In another text on ministering to families Guernsey writes,
I am suggesting that the church redefine itself in system terms as the whole but with the parts being its families rather than the individuals in those families. Even where there are no families… I am suggesting that the parts which make up the whole be construed as those clusters of primary relationships which function as family. The church according to this redefinition becomes a family of families. 17
Taking ecclesiology home: Implications for your ministry
In the late 1980s former youth pastor Stuart Cummings-Bond labeled the isolating effect of youth ministry as the “One-Eared Mickey Mouse.” 18 As churches began to add programmatic youth ministries in the 1970s and hired youth workers to “do youth ministry,” these ministries began looking like one-eared add-ons to the church, functioning as their own separate entities. As a result of the wild popularity of this model, kids have been increasingly segregated from worship and community with adults.
While this strategy has without a doubt resulted in numerous lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ (we’re some of them!), at the same time youth ministry has also produced its share of “spiritual orphans”. One of the reasons some youth workers have suggested for the turbulent transition of youth group graduates into college is because the only “church” they know is their youth group. Youth ministry was designed for middle and high school kids; graduation means you’re on your own. Students rarely find themselves intentionally assimilated into the community of faith so that they can graduate from high school with a firm sense of being part of the family of God, globally as well as in their home congregation.
Rodney Clapp writes, “With the coming of the kingdom… Jesus creates a new family. It is the new first family, a family of his followers that now demands primary allegiance.” 19 How, then, can we re-envision a model of youth ministry that gives primary allegiance to the “new first family” while still supporting the nuclear family and giving kids opportunities to grow in their peer friendships as well? Sounds like a tall order.
At FYI, we find ourselves asking (or being asked!) this question a lot. In response, one framework we are wrestling with is that of intergenerational ministry. While we’re just beginning to search out churches who are doing this well, we’ve put together a list of some possible distinctives of intergenerational ministry:
- Ministry strategies are sensitive to the developmental resources of children and adults of all stages as they relate to the Christian formation and development of teenagers.
- Ministry strategies recognize the developmental resources of teenagers to contribute to the Christian formation and development of children and adults.
- Ministry strategies foster relationships within and between generational boundaries.
- Ministry strategies recognize both top-down (originating with the senior leadership) and bottom-up (originating with congregational members or staff) influences in shaping the life of the congregation.
- Ministry strategies promote intergenerational hospitality.
- Ministry strategies promote intergenerational worship.
- Ministry strategies lend themselves to intergenerational service.
Ideas to put a new ecclesiology into practice
Manny and Desiree don’t have it all wrong—not at all. And neither do most of us as we make good-faith attempts at leading our youth ministries. But like Manny and Desiree, taking a few steps toward re-ordering our ecclesiology can set us up for a long jump toward healthier ministry to kids and families.
Below are a few ideas other leaders have shared with us on their own journeys toward pulling together all of the generations within the family of God.
- Experimenting in intergenerational worship: As Desiree’s church experience exemplifies, many smaller churches do a great job of weaving kids into the life of their corporate worship. Once churches get big enough to have a youth ministry budget, however, there’s often no more singing in the choir or reading the Bible in “big church” for teenagers. Whatever your church’s worship style or approach, there are likely a number of ways kids can be meaningfully involved. One church shared with us that they started reincorporating students into worship by setting aside an entire season (Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas) to worship together as a whole church. They divided the church into groups who studied, brainstormed, and planned creative aspects of each week’s worship service, and opened wide the doors for youth participation. They found that while the process wasn’t perfect and some kids (and adults) were certainly resistant, overall the church grew tremendously in its appreciation for the contribution of every age in corporate worship.
- Mentoring/small group leaders: So often youth pastors look to the youngest-possible adult volunteers to recruit as small group leaders and mentors for kids. While there’s a lot a college student has to bring to youth ministry (we both started out in youth ministry while we were still in college, so we’re not against it!), youth workers too often overlook the valuable life experience older adults can bring into the lives of kids. One of our best junior high girls’ small group leaders was Jean, a lady in her 70s who had nothing cool or hip to offer those girls, but was willing to sit and listen to them week after week, sharing the drama of middle school life and offering wisdom and prayer for these surrogate grand-daughters. Now, we recognize that not every 70-year-old is as sensitive or as willing as Jean, but we suspect there are a lot more out there than we’ve typically assumed.
- Service: From caring for local shut-ins to traveling across the world on a mission trip, service and care given in the name of Jesus need not be an age-exclusive enterprise. When we begin to see the entire church as the family of God, we see new opportunities for serving alongside kids and adults of every age. Last year one of us participated in an intergenerational mission trip to a cross-cultural location, and several of the folks we were serving among commented at the wide age range of our team—from one year old to over seventy! People notice when we come not as individuals or as an age-specific team, but as a church family.
- Skill teaching: Some churches connect generations by setting up skill-transferring relationships between older and younger members. This might be as simple and brief as an afternoon small group session on basic car maintenance, or as long and involved as a year-long apprenticeship learning an adult’s trade or professional skills. While some wonder how this contributes to kids’ spiritual development, we argue that kids need a whole-life approach to their faith, and the best way to learn it is to watch someone live it out.
For more ideas of what other churches have tried or are trying, listen to the audio downloads from Fuller’s “Connect For: An Intergenerational Approach to Ministry” conference available on the FYI website:
How God Works in the World Through Kids—Tod Bolsinger
Whole Ministry for the Whole Kid and the Whole Church—Kara Powell and Pam King
One Church, or Lots of Churches?—Brad Griffin and Linda Wagener
- If you were to plot your own church on the following continuum of kids’ involvement in the life of the congregation, where would you place your mark? How do you feel about that placement?
- When you stop to think about your own theology of church, what primary metaphors do you tend to use? How do your teaching and programming reflect your ecclesiology?
- To what extent do you agree that the family cluster of images (family of God, church-as-family, family of families) are central to a healthy ecclesiology of youth ministry? What strengths and weaknesses can you identify related to using family as a primary metaphor for church?
- Don’t ponder these thoughts alone! Sit down with your senior pastor and others in your church to explore your ecclesial metaphors and the ways they impact ministry relationships and programs. Brainstorm ideas for connecting generations within the church family, and set a goal to implement one new idea within the next month.
1. Chap asserts that the new goal of youth ministry should be “to assimilate authentic disciples into full participation in the life of the community of faith and the church.” Chap Clark, “Strategic Assimilation: Rethinking the Goal of Youth Ministry,” YouthWorker Journal (July/August 2002)
2. c.f. Acts 19; 1 Cor 11-14. A great resource for exploring the biblical writings on the church is Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, revised edition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
4. 1 Cor 1:1, 1 Cor 12:1-31, Eph 1:15-22
5. 2 Cor 11:2-3; Eph 5:32; Rev 21
6. Matt 18:20
7. Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 122.
8. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 28.
9. Gal 3:28; Eph 2:14-16
10. Authors’ note: Meredith Miller contributed significantly to the research in this portion of the article.
13. Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family, 149.
14. Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family, 61. The authors intentionally choose not to begin with marriage in their theology of family. The weakness of choosing marriage as the starting point for a theology of family is that it systemically excludes those who are single. Creating a community that sets up single vs. married people will only foster alienation and division. Belonging as an individual requires more than a good singles group. An unmarried person is a family too, theologically speaking. They function as family with the others in their lives, needing to live out covenant relationships just like every Christian does. Those clusters of significant, covenant relationships are family within the church.
15. Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family,147.
16. Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family, 159.
18. Stuart Cummings-Bond, “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse,” YouthWorker Journal (Fall 1989), 76.
19. Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 76-77 (emphasis added).
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