At the beginning of the semester I often ask my students to tell us all where each of them believe they are headed vocationally. They will be asked that question a lot over three years and they will ask themselves that question as well. So, it’s good for them to get started on that quest.
When student’s say that they believe that they might be called to youth ministry, I often – not so jokingly say: “Good for you. Youth ministers are not made. They are a genetic accident — because there are people who can get close to adolescents who can’t lead them, and there are those who can lead (or drive) them, but can’t get close to them. The ones who can do both are rare. Don’t let anyone discourage you along the way or convince you that it isn’t important.” In truth, of course, they can be trained, but in the flurry of adaptations to theological education underway, there are not many seminaries that devote significant time or instructional dollars in addressing their vocation.
And the problem, of course, is that those who have a vocation to working with adolescents and young adults will get a lot of discouragement:
Mainline Protestantism has hacked away at camp ministries. They have backed away from university and college ministry. Only larger, multi-staff parishes have the wherewithal to hire clergy charged with the task. Youth ministers are regularly paid less than their counterparts in other kinds of ministry and they will be regularly encouraged to move on and assume the role of rector or senior pastor. And as more pressure is applied to churches financially, there is greater pressure to move to bi-vocational ministries and youth ministry suffers accordingly.
The notion that we could neglect this kind of ministry and hope that people would return to the church later in adulthood should have been obvious nonsense. And the statistics confirm that it is. When adolescents and young adults are cut adrift from the church, they understandably look to other places for mentors and guidance. Barring any intervening variables, why would they suddenly look to the church?By contrast, the correlation between ministries with youth and the level of engagement with the church that the same people exhibit later in life is strong. But there is very little in the priorities of denominational judicatories and national meetings of one kind or another that suggest that youth ministry is a priority for them or that their ministries arise out of attention to the challenges that young people face. Instead, energy, attention and financial resources seem to be squarely focused on an agenda designed and shaped by those of us who are in our fifties and older, and the message seems to be (though we would never say it): Here is what we think should concern you.
There is zero reason to believe that this approach to engaging new generations of people in the life of the church will work. To be sure, I don’t believe that the church should simply survey any group of people – including adolescents and young adults – and then feed it back to them in the superficial business of building congregations. The church’s vocation is transformation in Christ and that entails giving voice to a message that will often be foreign, if not repellent, to those who hear it for the first time — or the one hundred and first time.
But a strong spiritual, pastoral, apologetic and evangelical* approach to preaching the Gospel must be attentive to the ways and places in which the Spirit of God speaks to people. To say, “Here is the truth, you should be interested in it” is unimaginative at best, and criminally lazy at worst. To say, “Here is the truth as we Boomers experience it and you should be interested in our version of it,” is even worse.
Both seminaries and churches will need to ask themselves how to come alongside adolescents and young adults in thinking and praying with them about the challenges they face and what it might mean to navigate those challenges as children of God. In a church-world marked by fractious internal debates and anxious flailing around for a “silver bullet” to address their precipitous decline, that kind of work will strike most as quaint and less than compelling – sadly, it already is. But if that continues to be the case, we will have ample time and leisure to repent of our failure.
*I intentionally use a lower case “e” here.