September 21, 2020

Hit “Pause” On That Youth Ministry Bashing

prayer-group.jpgI can be very critical of youth ministers. Trust me on that if you don’t know. That’s because I am one. I’ve got the gold watch. But I believe in youth ministry. I see what it is, where’s it’s gone wrong, and what it’s done right. The current “kicking spree” on youth ministry is simplistic and overdone. Here’s what I think about that.

It’s become rather fashionable to bash “youth ministry” for most of the problems of modern evangelicalism.

That actually makes sense, because youth ministry was supposed to solve all the problems of the church. At least that’s how it felt in the days of optimism we called “The Jesus Movement.”

When “youth ministry” appeared as a separate mission of the church, it was just one aspect of an “age-graded, specialized ministry” revolution that had been brewing since before Spurgeon. While I believe much of that revolution was an appropriating of modernistic, consumeristic values, it didn’t start in 1950. It had been going on, in some way, for a long time.

From the time the church decided to catechize and confirm its children, some kind of specialized ministry to young people has existed. The blame or credit for that decision can certainly be spread around. And when it comes to evangelicals, whose anxieties about their children run particularly high, it has never been hard to find some effort to “reach” young people using some aspect of “youth culture.” A pastor who “wants to reach the young people” used to be a standard on the pastoral wish list.

Remember Chariots of Fire? What was Eric Liddle doing in Scotland just after World War I? Wasn’t he going around running races and giving talks to young people who, someone judged, needed a “muscular Christianity?” Was that youth ministry?

While some like to blame youth ministry for de-emphasizing family as the primary unit of spiritual growth, the truth is more complex. To begin with, many young people- many- have never been part of a family that would take the spiritual nurture of that family seriously. If evangelicals have anything to be glad about in their youth ministry efforts, it’s how many students have the testimony that the church became for them a family of spiritual nurture. I had a good Christian family, but the dysfunction of mental illness in our home made the church’s role in my spiritual life crucial, and I am always grateful for that investment. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian without it.

In contemporary youth ministry, it has been church leaders, pastors and families who have generally emphasized youth ministry. In almost every instance when a church hired me to be their youth minister, the committee was made up of parents and church leaders. They were interested in a youth program that carried forward their vision of discipleship and what we Baptists used to call “Churchmanship,” i.e. the stewardship of service and witness through a local church.

These were parents who wanted their kids to be taught the Bible, involved in missions, singing in the choir, discipled and evangelized. In the youth programs that I experienced, staffed and led, parents were highly involved in everything. In fact, one of the biggest myths in the current scapegoating of youth ministers is the idea that youth ministry typically isolates students from adults and leaves them in the hands of twenty-somethings. My youth programs had parents everywhere, in every capacity. Even with budget for interns, I still used parents for the vast majority of ministry roles, and I would never have been able to do anything without dedicated parents willing to give time for camps, mission trips, use of their homes and, of course, lot of food.

Can youth ministry be blamed for importing the evils of pop culture into the church? Again, the answer isn’t as simple as critics would have you think.

I grew up in a church where the words “separation” meant something. We were anti-pants on women. We were against all dances and especially the prom. We were against anything that was contemporary or secular. Except when it came to youth ministry.

Like so many Southern Baptist churches, a music minister charged with running the youth program began using some appeals to young people in terms of their already growing youth culture. I was saved because I was asked to play bass guitar for our youth choir in a “rock” number that surprised more than a few of the old guard. In a “folk group” that I later sang in, we did “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” as one of our standards. Allowing students to come to Sunday evening church in sandals was a big step for us. Our youth program was typical in using methods and curriculum that distinguished between adults and teenagers in approach, with some appeal to youth culture as part of an appeal to come to revivals, rallies, special events or any part of the program.

I remember when I bought “The Way,” an edition of the Living Bible with “helps” for teenagers. That Bible was a goldmine for me. And contemporary Christian music became my constant companion. Our church sang old time Southern Gospel songs, and few of the great hymns. Say what you will, Andre Crouch and Paul Clark were just fine for me.

Was all of this wrong? I can assure you that no one on our church staff was listening to Simon and Garfunkel or reading the Living Bible, but the students were. Painting the church basement in a “youth decor?” Having “Youth nights” at church where things were more accommodating to young people’s music, interests and language? Inviting me to play the bass guitar in a “rock” ensemble? None of this was the dominant culture of our fundamentalist church, but it was part of that church’s attempt to come to grips with what it meant to evangelize and disciple their own children.

I remember sometime in the early 70’s, a rally in Dallas, Texas that featured what was, at the time, the “cutting edge” of contemporary Christian music in evangelicalism. There were groups with roots in Southern Gospel singing next to Larry Norman; a clean cut Pat Boone and some California Jesus rockers. Johnny Cash and Andre Crouch. Clean cut college vocal groups and long haired Jesus people. All of it presided over by Billy Graham….in long sideburns. Graham wanted, passionately, to reach young people. While preaching would always be center stage, he respected the medium of culture, and he also knew that, in some instances, it was ahead of the church in putting the Gospel into practice.

You look at a moment like that, and you realize that evangelicals, if they were true to themselves, had to evangelize a changing culture. They couldn’t ignore it and go back to what they had always done. Simply going back to their churches, back to the walls that fundamentalism lived behind, was not an option for a great commission people. And if they erred at those moments, if they did not see the eventual power of culture to reshape evangelicalism negatively, if they made errors in how much to accommodate and how much to separate, they were, at least in the beginning, simply going into “Judea” and “Samaria,” and trying to be recognizable to the inhabitants.

I spent many years as a church-based youth minister, and it is easy for me to see that the emerging and missional church movements come, partially, from seeds that were sown in the heyday of student ministry. It’s easy for me to see that many of the churches that did the best job reaching students, also did not prepare them to transition into “traditional” churches. Should they? That’s another day, another post.

I do not believe, however, that someone can throw out youth and student ministry as a failure. Recent figures show that the age of church attendance is dropping. I have a perspective of more than 30 years: Most of the kids in my youth groups are still in church somewhere. I’ve had the “Thank You” dinners and seen what my ministry accomplished. Most are Christians. Many are leaders and servants. Some are in Muslim countries and some are pastors and seminary teachers. Youth ministry reached, discipled and nurtured them in ways their family couldn’t, though I am the first to say no youth group ever replaced what God intended in a family or from a pastor.

I am, however, tired of the youth ministry bashing that acts as if there were no responsibility to take on the changing culture or to work within it. Piper says we need a wartime mindset. Adopting too much of the culture around us is a bad tactic for war. Seeking to go into that culture and win it for Christ is not. I cannot imagine that happening without something like evangelical youth ministry occurring in churches that care about evangelism and the Kingdom.


  1. jmanning says

    Discipled, reared, and serving in youth ministries since I was 15, I can give youth ministry the credit with showing me that Christianity wasn’t sitting in a glorified bench and listening to a sermon. It was cleaning up crack houses, painting AIDS shelters, sorting through clothing bins at a thrift store. Jesus wasn’t as vitally as present in the suits and ties on Sun morning during the sermon as He was in the slums, ghettoes, third world, and suffering that I was taught to confront from the sermons in the youth group. I love my mom and wish she had catechized me like a Puritan, but I’m glad that in a wierd twist of Providence she left it up to the youth ministry. She was never one for the bad side of town. Not less YM, better YM. Most of my friends who criticise YM came through it too. You hate what you love sometimes….

  2. IMonk,
    In past posts you’ve recommended Shane Claiborne’s book “The Irresistable Revolution” and Dan Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” You’ve also indicated recently that the Acts 29 emergent/church planting movement meets with your approval.
    I read both the above-referenced books and was especially moved by Claiborne’s. (I too fear my sons reading it, but I’ll let them anyway- when they’re old enough to get past “The Cat in the Hat” on their own.)
    How does this fit into your youth ministry ideas?
    Personally, I know I’d never fit into Mars Hill or Imago Dei; I’m 43, and Acts 29-type churches seem to focus on a siginificantly younger demographic.
    (My husband and I are presently undertaking RCIA, “instruction” and catechesis, in the Catholic Church. Old church for old folks!)

  3. centuri0n says

    I’m wondering what language the majority of criticism of Youth Ministry was translated into before iMonk received it and criticized the criticism here — because jmanning has hit the nail on the head even though iMonk tried to hide the tool box.

    The point of my criticism — and it is hardly a unique criticism of YM in general — is that the vast majority of it is entertainment and cultural capitulation, and it can be demonstrated factually to be leading kids to apostate faith at best. It is not that some get it right and because those men and women are in YM they should be tarred.

    The whole cannard that some kids (even if you say “many”, it cannot be characterized as “most”) get the only family they ever have at church is completely off-point. There’s no question: some churches get it right. And my guess would be that those churches are probably getting (a-hem) “big church” right also. But by a long shot, YM is most often a holy rec center where the things that happen are not even connected to values that even iMonk would say are the domain of the church.

    My original challenge is still open: demonstrate that the “missional” work of YM is producing more disciples than not. The data says it is not happening.