A conversation in an unhelpful direction?

For the first half of my ministry, I served the church as a youth pastor/Christian education guy. About a decade ago, my journey led me into the position of lead pastor, a role in which I continue to serve. When I moved into this role, I still kept a foot in youth ministry, which afforded me a unique perspective; doing youth ministry while also attempting to lead an entire congregation.

In the midst of that, there has been one conversation that I have had more times than I can remember. The conversation centers around the role of youth ministry in the overall growth and health of the congregation. Many will make this observation:Parents want to attend churches with strong youth ministries. I think that is true (although at times how “strong” is defined is a bit misguided, IMO).

That leads many congregations, or folks within those congregations who are anxious about growth, to advocate for youth ministry within their congregational context.

Often, however, it leads to a “field of dreams” approach based upon a “field of dreams” logic. “If we build it they will come”. That, I’m afraid, is not quite as true –  depending on how you define “they” and what “they” are coming to.

If “they” are students, and the youth ministry is relational and engaging, it is certainly possible to minister to the needs of students such that they “come”.

However, if “they” are the parents of students and what “they” are coming to is a Sunday morning worship service, then no – it’s not quite true.  Too many congregations assume that if kids are being ministered to through a local congregation that parents will engage in the worship life of that congregation as well.    That is a Christendom assumption that is no longer operative in American culture to a large degree.

Two shifts have occurred that undermine that assumption.  The first is that families today no longer expect one congregation to meet all of their spiritual needs.  While they will often prefer this, they are also willing to seek alternative patterns of engagement if they can’t find this.  It is not uncommon for a family to worship at one congregation, be involved in the small group ministry of another congregation, while their students participate in ministries at, yet, another congregation or within a para-church ministry (Youth for Christ, Young Life, etc.).  This is made possible by both consumerist predispositions and the rise of a generic Christianity or a Christian subculture that claims no tradition.  Families have needs and various religious institutions are perceived as venders of religious goods and services.  As long as they are “Christian” and meet needs, it matters little what tradition or denomination they may be associated with. (I intend this as descriptive not judgmental).

At the same time, post-Christendom, as much as it is rooted in postmodern cultural contexts, tends towards institutional suspicion which, in turn, leads to low denominational loyalty.    In “the good old days” a Mennonite went to a Mennonite congregation and a Lutheran went to a Lutheran congregation and a Methodist went to a Methodist congregation and so on.  Their kids went there too.  This meant that families had fewer options.  If they were committed to one denomination, they either had to move to another church within that denomination, accept the level of programing that congregation offered or jump in, roll up their sleeves, and create something within their context.  Given that assumption, it makes sense that if you can get students to come to a youth ministry at your congregation that the parents will also follow.  Not so.

This is a brief sketch of some highly nuanced trends, but I think they provide a helpful framework.  What it means is that ministering to the needs of students is one thing.  Ministering to the needs of their parents is another.  It is no longer helpful to assume that a congregation can do one without the other.  A focus on parents to the exclusion of ministry to students is not helpful.  Nor is a focus on students to the exclusion of parents helpful.  It is “both-and”.  Put differently: a congregation can have a dynamic ministry to students and still miss the mark on the adult level to such a degree that adult congregations stagnate.  Ultimately, if adult congregations stagnate, sustained student ministry is threatened.

All of that is to say that I think the best a congregation can hope for when it concerns the connection between youth ministry and adults participation is an opportunity.  Post-boomer parents are unwilling to sacrifice their own spiritual needs for the sake of their kids.  In today’s context, they don’t have to.  Because they are not rooted in a particular religious tradition they can pick and choose between congregations.   Because they are also more open to participating in a variety of congregations they approach this like consumers; I buy produce at one store, meats and dairy at another, clothes at various stores, and so on.

A bigger issue with the “field of dreams” approach, however, is this; a congregation should only do ministry to youth in order to minister to youth.  Mark Yaconelli provides great insight into this issue in Contemplative Youth Ministry.  Mark’s contention is that most youth ministry is motivated by adult anxiety, not a desire to make disciples of young people.  This, in turn, leads to the vast departure of youth from the church when they age out of youth ministries.

That is what leads me to the conclusion that the discussion of youth ministry and church growth is a conversation in an unhelpful direction.  A better conservation is the conversation about the spiritual formation of all people, from cradle to grave.  A healthy congregation is a congregation that lives fully under the rule and reign of Jesus as LORD and invites others to enter into that reality, too.   The practices of worship, mutual care, service to others, radical discipleship, catechesis of children and hospitality, practiced at all levels of faith formation and maturity, are life giving.

What are your thoughts, ideas, questions, experiences with these issues?




7 thoughts on “A conversation in an unhelpful direction?

  1. You should look up my buddy, Scott Roth, and his Project: Haven going on in East Greenville PA. It’s youth ministry… but it’s not like you’ve seen. It’s youth pastor actually integrating into the school district and reaching kids where they are, building community relationships, and “planting Jesus” to see what grows. It’s not a church, it’s not a new para-church program… it’s ministering to youth… Cool stuff happening!

    1. How is he able to integrate into a public school district as a youth minister? Is there some other pretext for his entry (teacher, coach, sub, etc.)? How does he go about “planting Jesus”?

      1. Started a few years back with a suicide in the community and churches in the area (multi-denominational) starting a prayer network praying over the youth in the community. He got involved in that process and spent time praying. Along with that, rather than living OUTSIDE of the district, he deliberately moved (IIRC) his family into the community, integrating his life right in with that of the kids.

        As a bit of an experiment, he started doing something different at New Eden where instead of your standard “Youth Group” on Wednesday nights with bible study and blah blah blah, basically created a “Refuge” where kids come, hang out, play games, talk about stuff, etc. Low pressure environment, basically a safe place to be. Discipleship of interested youth happens Sunday nights and Sunday morning for those interested… Wednesday nights is about getting to the kids in ways that they grok.

        Well, a couple of years ago, he gets a call out of the blue (sorta) by the school district. The School District is low on funds but knows that there is a need to prevent suicides like what was done before. Who ya gonna call? “Well, there’s this youth pastor, Scott, see, that I know from some business and other contacts…”

        Long story short, he now runs an afterschool program IN THE SCHOOL BUILDING for the high schoolers. He also does assemblies for the school on bullying and other youth related issues (not doing explicit “preaching” stuff) but basically giving the message of hope, making no real apologies of being a pastor (“If you looked at me, would you guess I was a pastor?”).

        In the meantime, there was a church, Peace Mennonite, which shuttered back in April 2011. The building is owned free and clear by Franconia Conference but no one knew what to do with it (and the conference really didn’t want to have real estate bogging it down). There was a prayer meeting where we (pastors and other interested persons) prayed over the building and the future of it. It was essentially agreed that something community oriented needed to happen there.

        Fast forward and we have Scott getting a) use of the building with nothing he has responsibility for outside of the utilities, b) partnership with the township and school district for making the building a public space c) partnership with “The Alternative Brew” a coffee-shop/bar alternative organization to come in and make a “third space” out of the place, d) enthusiastic youth from the after-school program and from his own church on site doing the clean up work, e) partnership with the local retirement center for generating a “space”… etc… it’s like all sorts of stuff has come together to create The Haven.

        How do you plant Jesus? Ministry of presence. Jesus oriented people are the folks involved in all areas of the project. It’s not a church plant, but it’s a Jesus plant and we’re watching to see what grows.

        You should check out Scott sometime… contact information is at http://newedenfellowship.org/

  2. Very cool! Thanks for sharing. I’ll look him up. Through a very similar situation, in a different area of community life, our congregation was gifted a facility by the local Southern Baptist church for community based ministry with those who are food-insecure (I can really make a food pantry sound academic, eh?)

  3. Thanks for your thoughts and insights! The ecology of the whole church body needs to be a part of any conversation about strengthening our ministry to youth. Do you mind if I provide a link to this on the Franconia/Eastern District youth worker page? And I concur with Robert that some good things are happening with Project: Haven. http://www.thehavenonline.net/wordpress/

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