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?