The Definition of Youth Ministry

The Definition of Youth Ministry April 24, 2016

Ellis-ProfileWes Ellis, one of our seminar leaders at PYM 16, has already written for us and will continue to be featured as a regular contributor.

A couple of years ago, I was at a youth ministry conference in Philadelphia. There were about 150 people or so—youth workers from various denominations and backgrounds—all gathered to try to figure out how to do youth ministry a little better. The keynote speaker, a friend of mine, began his talk with what he felt was a general definition of youth ministry. He wanted to talk about other things, so he had to give a definition that wouldn’t be too controversial, a definition on which pretty much all of us could agree. He said, “youth ministry is about developing adolescents into mature Christian adults.” As I heard this definition, I scanned the crowd. Would anybody show a sign of disagreement? What I saw was a room of heads nodding, signaling, “yeah, that definition basically works for me.” In that moment I realized that we’ve got a real problem on our hands.

Last month I talked about the problem of that kid—the kid in the youth group who doesn’t conform to our notions of Christian maturity, the kid who isn’t developing. This kid raises the question of youth ministry’s definition. Can a youth ministry that’s fundamentally about development actually minister to that kid? In youth ministry that’s about developing adolescents into mature Christian adults, that kid will always be a failure of the ministry and, in many ways, youth ministry will fail that kid.

You see, the problem at that youth ministry conference wasn’t so much that my friend was defining youth ministry as development. The problem was that, by and large, everyone agreed. This developmental approach to youth ministry has become so pervasive that it goes basically unquestioned.

Why is this the case? Why is developmentalism so dominant in youth ministry? I think it might have something to do with youth ministry’s historical affinity for developmental psychology (particularly its older forms brought to us by Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget). More than just an affinity, youth ministry’s relationship to developmental psychology has been one of utter dependence. We don’t know any other way to think about young people. Our paradigmatic interpretive lens is that of “adolescence”, wherein youth is fundamentally understood as a transitional stage of development on its way to adulthood. Youth are essentially valued for their potentiality and we’re left with little else to say about their actuality. So of course youth ministry is going to be about development.

But where else should we turn!? How else can we theorize the experience of young people? Is there any interpretation that might lead us out of the developmentalism in which we find ourselves?

Well, there are a couple of places we can turn. Perhaps chief among them is the interdisciplinary interpretive paradigm of childhood studies. In the 1990’s, sociologists and anthropologists, partly drawing off of insights from the French historian, Philippe Ariès, began to study childhood as a “social practice”—not as a biologically determined stage of development but a socially constructed cultural experience. Seeing children in this way allows the researcher to study the actual content of children’s experience and interpret its symbols of meaning. In short, it allows them to see children as “‘human beings’ rather than ‘human becomings.’”

Seeing youth in a similar way, rather than seeing it as transitional and transitory, allows us as youth ministers to see the actual content of young people’s experience, not just for its potentiality toward Christian maturity but for the actual content of what God is doing in the lives of young people here and now.

There are resources in other disciplines too, including disability studies (people with developmental disabilities really challenge the assumed dominance of developmentalism). But however we choose to look at it, we’ve got to find new ways of looking at youth and adolescence. Developing young people toward maturity may still have its place, but it can no longer serve as the least controversial definition for youth ministry. Ministry—participating with God in the things God is doing in the lives of human beings—needs to be the definition of youth ministry and we need an interpretive framework to support that definition.

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