Often I hear it said that “youth ministry” is not mentioned in scripture.
Some have said we should do away with youth ministry because of this.
It’s true that we may not find particularly helpful guidelines about which games to play at camp or how to structure a youth ministry program in Scripture. But when it comes to how God’s people are to connect the young to the community of faith, you can bet the Bible addresses these very issues.
What is interesting about this reality is how far much of present-day youth ministry has veered off this track.
I’m writing not to indict as much as to confess. I, as much as anyone else, have been a purveyor of the typical youth ministry models. It has only been in the last handful of years that I have had the time, space, and privilege of reflecting upon the youth ministry movement. In this time I have become painfully aware of my many missteps.
What is the Goal of Youth Ministry?
In the classroom when I ask my students about the goal of youth ministry, often they are stumped – as if they hadn’t thought about it before. Eventually they mention things like “getting kids saved,” maybe “preserving purity” and not unusually “providing an alternative social structure.” These goalsare not bad, but fall short of what youth ministry can be.
My own working definition of the purpose and goal of youth ministry is “to integrate young people into the body and mission of Jesus Christ.” The idea of “integration” denotes being a part that is in harmony with the whole. In other words,the individual findshis or her place of meaning and purpose within the whole. To do this within the Body of Christ is to know Jesus Christ, follow Jesus Christ, and then to live as Jesus Christ has modeled for us to live, becoming part of his mission to reconcile the world to himself. This, for me, is a compelling purpose.
Two Biblical Anchors
I have found the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and Paul’s treatise on the “body” (I Corinthians 12:12-26) to be two primary sources of the Bible’s instruction that affect our practice of youth ministry. I’m confident that these are not the only sources provided in scripture, but they have been very helpful to meas starting points.
1. Love the Lord Your God
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength . . .” So begins the “Shema” from Deuteronomy 6:4. The Shema is a central and primary declaration of the Hebrew worldview.In the Ancient Near East this was a radical declaration of monotheism and belonging to a personal God who knew and cared for and about Israel. So important to the identity of Israel, the Shemawas likely taught to children as soon as they could speak! [[Jeffery H. Tigay, ed. Deuteronomy:The J.P.S. Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 440.]]
Implicit in these verses are that the primary instructors of children (and youth) in faith are parentsand other close family members. Research confirms that this is still true today. The National Study of Youth and Religion concluded that, generally speaking, young persons will end up following the same religious path as their parents. [[Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton,Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005), 261.]] As a parent, this is both encouraging and frightening.
So the first take-away about how we are to practice youth ministry is that it must meaningfully involve parents. In my experience, this has typically been one of the most significant holes in how I have structured and practiced ministry. Yet this is not a minor detail of our craft – it is a HUGE miss – if we are not in fact involved in ministry to and with parents.
According to biblical scholar Patrick Miller:
The picture [provided here] is that of a family continually in lively conversation about the meaning of their experience with God and God’s expectations of them. Parental teaching of the children by conversation about ‘the words,’ study of God’s instruction, and reflection on it (cf. Ps. 1:2 and Josh. 1:8) is to go on in the family and the community . . . parents should teach their children in such a way that their last thoughts before falling asleep and their first words upon getting up are about the Lord’s command. [[Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy - Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 107-8.]]
Of course for this to be done well it ideally starts at birth. One small way we attempt to address this in our home is through our daily reading of a Psalm at breakfast and our work as a family to memorize key passages in scripture each evening before bed. Our kids are sponges when it comes to memorization! They absolutely shame my wife and me.
It seems clear - from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as well asrecent sociological research - that parents are the primary influence of a young person’s faith. So does this mean that youth group kids without Christian parents are hopeless? How ought the Church respond to and value youth within the community of faith? I believe these issues are addressed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
2. All the Parts of the Body
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 the apostle takes on the importance and value of each and every part of the body, describing the Church as the body of Christ. In doing so, Paul is taking a common metaphor of his day and reappropriating it with new meaning. Ordinarily this figure of the body was “used to urge members of the subordinate classes to stay in their places in the social order and not to upset the natural equilibrium of the body by rebelling against their superiors.” [[Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians - Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 213.]] Paul instead uses this device to argue for the “need for diversity in the body (vv.14-20) and for the interdependence among the members (vv.21-26).” [[Ibid.]] Further, Paul uses this metaphor to “urge all members to utilize their gifts for the common good rather than to urge the subordination of some members to others for the good of the whole.” [[Ibid.]]
Paul is telling the Corinthians – and by extension, you and me – how important all members are to the proper function of the Body and that we are actually all needed. Everyone has something important to contribute—their very selves—and this diversity is vital. We are all one through the same baptism, regardless ofwhen ours occurred. We have solidarity with the young, old, infirm, differently-abled, and so on. And if we take Paul at his word, each and every one is not only allowed to be a part but is vital to the proper functioning of the body! Young people are a necessary part of the body and ought to be valued as much as any other part. And this is true whether or not their parents are actively involved in the church or their spiritual nurture.
Paul’s strong statement leads us to draw some provocative conclusions in the case of the Church and the current state of youth ministry. It does not seem a stretch to see why the youth of the Church like “feet” and “ears” [[It is interesting to note the characterization of an “ear” between both this and that of Stuart Cummings-Bond in his renowned article “The One Eared Mickey Mouse.”]] over against that of “hands” and “eyes” (vv.15-16). Often it is the young whoare treated as if the other (older) parts “do not need them” (v. 21). [[Additionally, Paul’s advice to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12) is a helpful reminder. “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”]] The young, like other marginalized populations, are often denied access to positions of leadership and meaningful roles of ministry within the Church. And this, it seems, is the “natural order of things” [[Hays, First Corinthians - Interpretation, 215.]] in our world. However, the whole reason for this passage may be to point out that the body of Christ doesn’t function according to the natural order of things. Instead, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we treat with greater honor” (vv 22-23).
So we are to value and to make space for all parts of the body regardless of age, income, status, family structure, or physical characteristics. Challenging? For sure! But this is what it means to be the Body of Christ.
Consider for a moment how your congregation might be different if the leadership truly valued young people as much as those with significant financial resources.
What could young persons do, on a weekly basis, in the worship service?
Which leadership roles could be made available to middle school and high school students? For example, could students assist on the tech team? Or take the offering? Or help prepare the communion elements? Or play in the worship band? Or perform special music or read scripture?
If young people are truly valued by a congregation then it will show in the visibility of young people in a congregation’s weekly and public ministry, as well as the ways teenagers are involved throughout the week serving the church. Some churches make sure at least one student serves on each church committee (yes, even finance). Others look to students to serve—and sometimes lead—in local ministries of compassion.
The idea here is to do something. It can be a very small and simple start (often those are best), but start we must if young persons are to be integrated into the body and mission of Jesus Christ.
- What biblical texts most resonate with your understanding of youth ministry or youth and family ministry? How do they guide your practice?
- Based on the passages illustrated in this article, inwhat ways do you see your own ministry aligning with biblical principles? What points of tension or conflict do you see?
- What role does ministry to and with parents play in your current structure? How could your ministry take a step closer to parents by inviting them into what you are already doing?
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