A New Kind of Youth Ministry (to save the local church)

By David Sessions the Student Minister at the Highland Church of Christ. David got his MDiv from Lipscomb and is currently in a Growing Young Cohort at Fuller Seminary.

I don’t want to do youth ministry anymore. After ten years of work in churches and private Christian schools, I am now 34 and I require a trip to chiropractor to fully recover from overnight trips. But that’s not why I’m done. I have a growing number of students who have graduated from ministries I’ve led, students who were active participants, who no longer believe in the mission of the local church. There are too many hours, there is too big of a budget, there is too much time away from family, and too much many volunteers doing the same for so many young people to walk away. I’m fed up with the model of youth ministry so many of us give our lives to and echo Mike Yaconelli who, months before his untimely death in 2003 said, “Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.”[1] So I don’t want to do youth ministry anymore, at least, not the way I’ve always done it.

How did we get here? Youth ministry began in earnest in post WWII America. When GI’s returned home, a huge amount of Americans were the first in their families to move off farms or out of cities and into the suburbs. They began working higher paying jobs that allowed for another new phenomenon, free time. And with so much free time? Babies, lots of babies. About ten years after WWII and a boom of new Americans, a new class emerged named “Adolescents” or “teenagers.” While there had been youth micro-cultures and movements before WWII (“Flappers” in the US or “Mods” in the UK) there had never been a near universal emergence of a new age-based social demographic. Almost overnight an entirely new culture centered around youth emerges. Rock-n-Roll, Seventeen Magazine, sock hops, drive in movie theaters and youth sports like Little League all begin and grow in popularity during this time period. One North American institution that did not immediately begin meeting the specific demands of this new culture were churches.

Parachurch organizations like Young Life Campaign (later shortened to Young Life) started by Jim Rayburn and Youth for Christ by Billy Graham began ministering to unchurched adolescents. These organizations never intended to be the only spiritual community a teenager experienced but had specific strategies to guide teenagers to “bible believing churches.” Either as a way of making room for the influx of teenagers, or perhaps a sense of competition, local churches began staffing ministers specifically for teenagers and creating age-specific ministry programs. By the late 1960’s and early 70’s it became apparent that youth specific ministry in churches was here to stay as churches from all different denominations made significant financial and personnel commitments to youth programs.

Though youth ministry was growing and, by the metric of sheer numbers, highly successful, one man prophesied a warning in 1988 when Stuart Cummings-Bond wrote an article for Youthworker Journal called “The One-eared Mickey Mouse.”[2] The One-eared Mickey Mouse is a phenomenon in which a church so thoroughly supports it’s youth ministry that it supplies it with its own minister, it’s own volunteer staff, perhaps it’s own room, wing, or even separate building. Before long, the ministry is a loosely affiliated organization to the church that birthed it; a church unto it’s own. If you were to draw a Venn-diagram of such a church it would look like a big circle in the middle (the church) with a smaller circle (the youth group) just barely touching it with little-to-no overlap, thus resembling a Mickey Mouse with only one ear. The youth group, though appearing healthy, is actually a monoculture church. It has it’s own values and does not know the worth of it’s own history.

Often churches ignore the scriptural assumption that communities of faith own the spiritual formation of their young through habits of communal remembering.[3] When this happens youth ministries become a history-less, un-storied community that doesn’t know how it arrived or where it is going. They are with out origin and with out direction thus, when this short period of their life passes, they are with out a communal identity. Counter-intuitively, churches so supported their age-specific ministries[4] that they forgot their need for togetherness.

Did you know American teenagers today do less drugs, drink less alcohol, have less sex and even use less vulgarities than any generation since WWII?[5] You wouldn’t know it by watching media portrayals of them but it’s true. Did you know parents in the developed world (including the US and Canada) spend more time with their children now than in any generation since WWII?[6] Ironically, this generation also reports feeling more isolated than ever before.[7] How can this be? Could it be that while their parents spend more time with them their church has abandoned them. Did their church teach them what to believe and how to behave but never that they belonged?

What happened between Jim Rayburn and Stuart Cummings-Bond; Billy Graham and Mike Yaconelli? Why are so many young people leaving churches and why hasn’t the massive amount of resources poured into youth ministry counter-acted the phenomenon? Better yet, how has it directly contributed? While external forces of culture have certainly helped, I believe the primary causes of the “Rise of the Nones” is internal to the church.

Today I wanted to show how youth ministry started with good and honest intentions. Men like Jim Rayburn and Billy Graham wanted to bring teenagers into the mission of the local church and I believe most youth workers since have truly wanted to help teenagers. It just hasn’t worked. Further, it isn’t a matter of better strategies but an entirely new, or perhaps ancient, ecclesiology. In my next post I hope to imagine such an ecclesiology.

*Just to be clear, none of this is new. I’ve borrowed extensively in both ministry and in writing this (primarily from Chap Clark’s edited volume Adoptive Youth Ministry: Integrating Emerging Generations into the Family of Faith)

[1] Mike Yaconelli, “The Failure of Youth Ministry,” sundaysoftware.com/yaconelli.htm.

[2] Stuart Cummings-Bond, “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse,” YouthWorker Journal 6 (Fall 1989): 76-78.

[3] Deuteronomy 6

[4] Because while it was the first, all subsequent age-specific ministries have followed youth ministry’s example.

[5] Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Youth Specialties, 2006), 34.

[6] Guilia M. Dotti Sani, Judith Treas, “Educational Gradients in Parents’ Child-Care Time Across Countries, 1965-2012,” Journal of Marriage and Family (2016).

[7] Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 23.

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