We live in a church culture where some quadrants are starting to second guess the value of youth ministry. Books, articles and blogs have been written decrying its effectiveness and calling out for action steps that range from small tweaks to a complete trashing of it.
And, yes, if we're honest, we all know down deep inside that something is wrong. Teenagers are leaving the church before and after they graduate. As Mike Yaconelli, one of the founders of Youth Specialties, said back in the day, the typical youth group has less seniors than juniors, less juniors than sophomores and less sophomores than freshman. In the eleven years since Mike went to be with Lord teenagers have become even busier and more distracted by technology and less impressed with the fun and flash of typical youth ministry programming.
Something needs to be done for sure. Systemic change needs to happen. But I want to challenge you to take giving up on youth ministry altogether off the table of options. Here are four reasons why I'm not giving up on youth ministry:
1. It gives a safe place for broken teenagers to be healed.
There are those who say that the primary responsibility of raising teenagers to become men and women of God lies with their parents. And they are correct. But the problem is that most of the young people in America today now come from broken homes. Many of the parents in these homes are either not spiritually mature believers (or not believers at all) and so they cannot take the lead when it comes to the spiritual development of their own children.
I was one of those kids. Raised in a broken home by a single mom in a tough urban neighborhood, I didn't have a mom who could pour into me spiritually...because she wasn't yet a believer herself.
But thank God for a church that took me in. It took hundreds of kids like me in. The youth leaders in this church loved us, taught us and did what many of our parents were spiritually incapable of...discipled us.
Of course believing parents need to take the lead when it comes to discipling their own children but unbelieving parents are incapable of that. An effective youth group can be a powerful change agent in the life of a teenager in these situations.
2. It provides an opportunity for Titus 2 relationships to be built.
Titus 2: 3-8 tells us, "Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us."
In the 1st Century Jewish culture many girls were married off in their teen years so this passage was a call for older women (who could be in their twenties or thirties) to disciple the younger women (teenagers.) This passage also assumes older men are pouring into younger women ("similarly, encourage the young men...") In other words this passage is a powerful indication that in the early church men poured spiritually into teenage boys and women poured into teenage girls.
This is exactly what happens in the healthiest youth ministries I've witnessed. Lone Ranger type youth ministries that hinge on the personality of a single youth leader eventually implode. But youth leaders who raise up men and women to disciple teenagers in and out of the youth ministry context tend to thrive. And, of course, these same youth leaders are equipping believing parents to be central to this discipleship process as well.
Yes this can happen in churches that don't technically have youth groups but, in my opinion, it is far less likely. Youth ministry provides a powerful context for these relationships to be developed and nurtured.
3. It gives teenagers the chance to connect with a like-minded tribe for a common cause.
Something wonderful, exciting and a little dangerous takes place when teenagers gather with other teenagers. Pent up adrenalin, idealism and twitchiness swirl together to unleash a hurricane of good (or, in some cases, not-so-good.) But if harnessed and focused this powerful cocktail can change the world.
Mormons have perfected the art of harnessing teen angst and adrenalin to advance the message of Mormonism. As I type these words tens of thousands of young missionaries are going door-to-door around the globe spreading the works-based "gospel" of Mormonism to the world. Say what you will about Mormon theology but the Mormon philosophy of bringing young people together for a cause that seems greater than themselves and focusing it to advance a message is powerful.
I believe that the youth group should be a gathering place for Christian teenagers to be inspired to share the true gospel with their peers. It should be the place where a local and global vision of making disciples who make disciples is cast and actuated. The healthiest youth ministries I have seen use their youth group meeting as a recruiting ground for campus missionaries who go back to their public schools and share the message of Jesus with their peers.
The energy in these youth group meetings is palpable because the youth groups are filled with unbeliever cynicism combined with new believer excitement. These youth groups feel a little dangerous because they are pulling the tail of the lion by ripping souls from the domain of the Devil. But this tension creates a dependence of Jesus that ultimately overwhelms everything and everyone.
When youth groups are the primary gathering place for like-minded teenagers to accomplish the ultimate cause great things happen.
4. It offers teenagers a place to openly explore the Christian faith.
Let's be honest, it's tough in a church setting for a teenager to explore their faith. After all, the action is on the stage and there's not usually a question and answer time after the sermon (although maybe there should be!)
But the youth group setting is typically much more fluid and interactive. This can be a great place of teenagers (both believing and non-believing) to explore the Christian faith more deeply. Years ago Dare 2 Share did a reality series called Gospel Journey Maui where we brought together young people from various faiths (Buddhist, Mormon, Jewish, etc), put them on a plane to Maui and had a week's worth of spiritual discussions and activities that we put on film. Thousands of youth groups across the United States have used this to create spiritual discussions in the youth group context. More recently, Youth Alpha put together a film series to explore these key spiritual questions as well.
But, whether it's Gospel Journey Maui, Youth Alpha, another curriculum or just asking great questions that open up spiritual discussions the youth group setting can and should be a safe place for teenagers to explore the Christian faith.
These are four reasons I'm not giving up on youth ministry. They're not the only reasons but these are the strongest ones in my book. I believe the best days of youth ministry are ahead. Actually, I'm convinced that the more confusing the world gets, the more broken families become and the more deeply the gospel is embraced as the solution the more we will need youth groups to be the centrifuge of community wide transformation one teenager at a time.
Why are you not giving up on youth ministry?