What Are We Doing Here?: Missional Youth Ministry (Super Serial Post #5)

We’ve established what it means to be missional. Now the time has come to drill down even further and focus on two areas that are close to my heart: youth and young adult ministry. This post will focus on understanding missional youth ministry, while the next post will wade into the murky waters of blog posts about young adult ministry.

The first thing that we need to decide is the purpose of youth ministry. Youth ministry emerged shortly after the idea of adolescence and the teenage years became a cultural norm around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, you were a child or you were an adult.

With the standardization of schooling and the protection of children from unfair labor practices, a new category emerged. Suddenly there was this group of young people: not children and not yet adults, with free time and closely drawn social circles.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, when churches sought to offer an alternative to the “secular youth culture” that was seen as a corrupting force in the world. Churches created equally attractive events and groups that would draw youth away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and towards Christ.

Quick, get inside before the culture gets on you.
Quick, get inside before the secular culture gets on you.

The goal was to convince the youth that Jesus is their friend.

This model continued, fairly unchecked, for decades.

Growing up in southern Alabama, I remember the evangelical youth group members passing out flyers at school for events that featured free tacos, free video games, moon bounces, and any other gimmick that would draw our attention.

Moonbounce...for Jesus?
Moonbounce…for Jesus?

I would often ask, “What are we doing here?”, as I played Nintendo, ate tacos, and talked to the cute Baptist girls.

The youth group I attended at the local Episcopal Church never offered video games or nights centered around free tacos. There were never flyers to hand out or gimmicks advertised.

Instead, 15-20 of my closest friends gathered together once a week for an hour. We played a goofy game, discussed the Bible and Christ’s love, and grew in community. We would also do a lot of community service.

I remember thinking, “What are we doing here?” as we picked up trash along the beach or painted the walls of the local thrift store.

These two examples show the two most prominent forms of youth ministry that I have seen.

The first focuses on numbers. The goal is to bring as many youth as possible in the door. What happens once they are inside the doors can change week-to-week, as long as a lot of youth are present. The thinking is that the more youth you bring, the more youth you can bring to Christ, and the bigger impact you can have.

The second model focuses on community. The goal is to have a close-knit group of youth, with little focus given to the size of the group. This is the predominant model in the Episcopal Churches that I have seen. The group gathers at the church, plays some games, eats dinner (usually spaghetti or pizza), and does some sort of activity.

These models are not inherently wrong.

They have worked for many years and reached many people. I was formed by my Episcopal youth group and youth minister as a middle school and high school student.

The problem is that they are both built on the attractional model of church. Programs (or tacos) bring the youth into the church building where they are entertained for an hour once a week.

If the goal of our youth ministry is entertainment, it is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are coming. If we are trying to entertain we will have to compete with social media, video games, Netflix, and the myriad of other extracurricular activities that are vying for our youth’s time.

We have lost sight of the primary reason for gathering a youth group and why youth group is important. Until we recover and articulate our purpose and importance of youth group, the other extracurricular activities will always win out. Parents can clearly explain why a young person needs to participate in their soccer team or band, but can they as clearly articulate why it is important to go to youth group?

Can we clearly articulate why youth group is important? Do we even believe that youth group is important?

In the book As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students, Kenda Creasy Dean says, “We are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe. Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people primarly focused on ‘folks like us’….”(pg. 59).

We have lost sight of the true purpose of the church and, therefore, we have lost sight of the true goal of youth ministry.

Before I go any further I should note that I am not anti-fun. I don’t think that youth group should be a lecture or another church service. That being said, if the only reason the youth gather together at church is to play games and eat pizza, why are they at church?

What makes the church different is that it is first and foremost about the mission of God, who is reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.

Youth group is so much more than a refuge from the secular world or a social club. Youth group can be a place where youth are taught the Christian story and spiritually fed so that they can go out into the world and preach the Gospel with their lives and with their words.

Another trend over the past decades is the postponing of perceived maturation in the church. People automatically assume that the youth group can’t understand weighty theological topics or can’t assume leadership positions in the church. Or even worse, many adult leaders assume youth are apathetic and don’t care about the church.

There are many churches and Dioceses that are exceptions to this trend. Many places treat youth with the respect they deserve and include youth voices in the life of the community.

However, there are also many churches that see the youth group as babysitting and the youth as wild animals that would flip over cars if left unattended.

Missional youth ministry’s first goal is not entertainment. It is also not babysitting by another name.

Missional youth ministry is about raising up youth to lead in their congregations and communities. It is about equipping youth so that they can go out into the world with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is about getting to know the youth in the community and their actual (not perceived or assumed) needs.

It is less about one youth minister or youth worker serving as the Pied Piper of the youth and more about a group of adults investing in the lives of the youth of their faith community.

It is less about one big youth event that attracts a large number of youth and more about a small number of youth sent out to encounter and influence their world.

Paul talks about the difference between spiritual milk and spiritual meat (1 Corinthians 3). We give our youth spiritual milk from birth until they go off to college and wonder why many of them don’t come back.

What we need is a reframing of our understanding of youth ministry.

Less entertainment, more equipping. 

Less babysitters, more mentors. 

Less gimmicks, more Gospel. 

Youth can handle more than the baby food we have been serving them. The youth that I have encountered are hungry for the Gospel to be preached and are ready for the responsibility that we often withhold.

They are used to being told what they cannot do (or should not do) by all the adults in their lives.

What they are not used to hearing is what they can do or what they have been called to do by God.

What is the answer? What are the five steps to an effective, missional youth ministry?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do any of this. It takes the long, hard work of relationship. Each church’s youth have different needs. Each ministry context has unique challenges.

One thing is clear – it is time to put some meat on the bones of youth ministry. Many, many churches and youth leaders are doing amazing things. Many people have given their whole lives to the service of the youth of the church.

There are so many amazing youth workers that live out their calling working tirelessly behind the scenes, building lasting relationships and effective ministries.

It’s time for the rest of the church to wake up and give youth the respect they want and deserve.

When youth ask “What are we doing here?”, we should be prepared to give them more than pizza and a moonbounce or even fellowship and community service.

The church has something to offer youth and it is something they are desperately looking for. The church has Jesus Christ and through Christ, we have real meaning. We have the answer to the meta-question, “What are we doing here?”

A missional youth group is a place where youth figure out their God-given gifts, experience what it is like to live in community, and learn the story of redemption through Christ.

A missional youth group is a place where youth learn that they matter and they have meaning. It is a place where they are affirmed. It is a place where they learn what it means to be a Christian. It is a place where they find their calling.

“What are we doing here?” 

I’m not sure, but come to youth group this week and we’ll figure it out together. 

Stay tuned for next week’s post all about missional young adult ministry.

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