Traditional Youth Ministry and the Weak Gospel

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.

In my last post I made a bold claim that the element most contributing to the “Rise of the Nones” was traditional youth ministry. Where others might place more blame on culture (and there is a fair argument to be made) that stance fails to take into account the power of the gospel. I believe the power of the gospel is such that, when fully embodied, it will capture the heart of any person, in any culture, at any time. The fact that more young people, in this culture, at this time are leaving church is proof the church has failed to incarnate the gospel. The rise of a secular culture and it’s increased impact on our youth is proof of, not cause of, the church’s gospel problem.

However, I don’t want to take cheap shots at the church and I’m not going anywhere.

I believe the church and the gospel it professes of the Lordship of Jesus is still the hope of the world; the hope of all young people. It is those who love the church that must be honest about it’s gospel problem. Furthermore, when youth ministries (or any ministry) separate themselves from the rest of the church, they become history-less, futureless, micro-communities. They cannot remember God’s work of redemption to the past, they cannot imagine God’s work of restoration in the future, so they cannot conceive of a gospel beyond the present. A gospel with no past and no future is no gospel at all. In short, church’s with “successful” youth ministry birthed The Nones when they stopped practicing gospel together. I can’t say it more succinctly than that and, honestly, I’m tired of identifying the problem. I want to direct my energies towards imagining a better way.

Supportive non-parental adults help teenagers reach full emotional, academic, relational, and behavioral maturity. This has been proven so extensively that we can assume it’s truth without further proof or explanation.[1] We can easily extrapolate that adolescents would also need supportive non-parental adults to reach full spiritual maturity. Or, that they need non-parental adults to fully communicate the gospel. However, this shouldn’t be surprising to readers of the Old Testament.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses instructs the Israelites to obey and fear the God of their deliverance. It is a clear call to reverence and strict adherence to the values of the covenant. And, they are to normalize the covenant; it is to become a part of their everyday lives, conversations, and habits. The relationship between God and God’s people is both awesome and normal. Of course, within the normalcy of the Israelite’s practice, is the practice of teaching the covenant to their children. The letters of the law, the stories of the law, and the festivals of law-remembrance all function to give Israelite children a clear understanding of their unique identity. It is God’s plan that children within this faith community would be formed by the community itself as they practice, teach, and celebrate God’s covenant together. Israelite children’s faith is not formed only by parents or a Levite specifically tasked with the faith of adolescents. Israelite’s passed their faith to their children by treating them as full-participants in the covenant community. Including children in the practice of the unique covenant was the most natural and normal thing to do.

Much later, when Jesus was teaching[2], some parents brought their children to hear the new rabbi. Perhaps these peasant parents felt it the most natural thing to do to include their children in faith development. Maybe these parents were included when they were younger and all this just felt natural. Unfortunately for the apostles, they thought the children needed to be separated from the adults and it made Jesus mad! Like his father, Jesus’ ethic of community assumed the inclusion of children. Perhaps, that children would be featured. Most fascinating is Jesus’ reasoning. Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to them. It’s almost like he’s telling the adults to watch the children because there’s something they have to teach us; something we can’t learn any other way than by their presence. When children are included it’s better for the adults. From Deuteronomy and the giving of the law, to Jesus and the new covenant, the values of God are that children and adults would share their faith together. I began this post by arguing adolescents will never understand the gospel until the are brought back into community, but Jesus teaches its the adults who will never understand heaven until children are present.

My stance is that, while some age-specific formation is important, churches must find more ways for children and adults to share their faith together. Chap Clark would call this “Adoptive Youth Ministry” based on Paul’s usage of that word to describe the commonality between Jews and Gentiles in 1st Century Church. The mutuality of adoption is a good word for understanding the humility required for adults to welcome our adolescents back into church. Adults don’t lay claim to shared space as if they earned the gospel and adolescents must do the same before they’re found worthy. Of course, adults have much to teach adolescents, but Jesus might argue no more than what adolescents have to teach adults. Any description of what this looks like has to be descriptive and not prescriptive because each church will need to develop it’s own adoptive strategies to fit it’s contexts.

Here are some big picture strategies.

1      Worship together. This is essential. If your youth program is directly competing with a worship service because they occur at the same time, change it now. Do what you need to do, get creative, bargain, plead, but whatever you do, worship together. If you don’t worship together, practice the sacraments, take communion, share in each other’s baptisms, profess creeds, or pray together, what makes you part of the same faith community?

2          Give teenagers real responsibility. Do this experiment, ask your church staff, volunteers, or active members this question, “how old were you when a church first trusted you with something important?” I can guarantee you that 80% or more of those people would tell you a story a church trusting them with something before they were 18. I’m not advocating that every element of the worship or church life should cater to one age, but that adolescents who are taught how to actively participate in a community with all ages are far less likely to add to “The Rise of the Nones.”

3          Get their perspectives. The next time your church is forming a team to discern something, anything from the new color of the carpet to new volunteer leadership or even new ministry staff, ask their opinion. Not only will they give a unique and helpful perspective, it communicates to them that leadership considers them full participants.

4          Create space for honest conversations about any issue where adolescents and adults alike are not corrected for their views. The church can take a cue from Alcoholics’ Anonymous’ rule about “cross-talk.” Each person should be invited to share their perspective without anyone else over-identifying, judging, or correcting. While times of teaching are important, along with the humility of listeners to have ears to hear, its my experience that adolescents have many opportunities for teaching and zero opportunities to be heard (in church or elsewhere). Healthy families have honest conversations and, even if a teenager holds an opinion that is just flat out wrong, a loving family that trusts God is at work even when we can’t see, it will allow that opinion to breath.

  1. Create a system for non-parental adults to share their hobbies with adolescents. It doesn’t even really matter what it is. I have seen adults share woodworking, hunting, knitting, hiking, gymnastics, and many other passions with teenagers and in the process an adolescent gains another non-parental adult who can be called upon later when life gets difficult; one more adult who can speak the name of Jesus when an adolescent needs it most. The activity is the means to building trust, the critical teachable moment may happen during the activity itself or five years later.

There are probably a thousand others practical ideas. These are five are some I’m working on now. I believe the basic question youth ministry leaders should begin asking themselves are these two, “Where and when are we providing space for age-specific faith development?” and “Where, when and how are we encouraging adolescents and adults to practice their faith together? My bias is churches should seek about a 2:1 ratio of time together to age specific time.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439201/ This source is actually a composite of the plethora of sources that all support the need for non-parental adults for mature adolescents.

[2] Mark 10:13-16

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