Tim Schmoyer is doing a series on current issues in youth ministry. I wasn’t one of the 21 people asked to weigh-in on the topic (because, well, I don’t know him) but I can still post my own thoughts on my blog. So I will! Some of my emergent/emerging tendencies will be evident in my answers.
What do you see as some of the main issues youth ministry is struggling with today?
It’s a little surprising to me to see that no one in Tim’s series has really named what I see as the number one problem facing youth ministry today: ecclesiology. People have named things like sexuality, stress, priorities, etc. I agree that these are issues. But I also believe that our current ecclesiology leaves us impotent to really deal with these issues. Without re-thinking the way we are a community of believers, naming issues in teen culture is useless.
What I see when I read people’s responses to questions like these is that we are still too dichotimized when we think about youth ministry in relation to the rest of the church. We are still focusing on our “sphere” of responsibility without considering how the rest of our church influences what we are trying to do (namely, disciple teenagers). We need a communal ecclesiology that fosters an alternative way of life for all those who are called to be a part of our worshipping body. This means that youth ministry becomes the job of the church, not the youth ministry. The “youth ministry team” then becomes advocates to the wider congregation in fostering a youth ministry attitude and way of life in the whole congregation rather than simply filling roles in the youth ministry (even if they are very important and valuable roles!). Until we truly lose the structure of youth ministry as a separate “ministry” within the church, I believe we are doomed to failure.
I believe that for the majority of people in our congregtions, church is still “one of the things I do.” This is in addition to work, hobbies, family, etc.; this is nothing new. What we need to begin to foster is a new way of doing (for lack of a better term) and being church so that the life of Christian community is no longer one of the many spheres within which we operate, but it becomes the normative sphere. I’m afraid we are reluctant to experiment with a new ecclesiology because it means that our churches may grow smaller before they grow bigger and deeper. Or, worse yet, or imaginations are so captivated by our culture and the way we’ve always done things that we no longer even have the ability to think outside the box.
I say all this because without a healthy growing community youth ministry will be unable to deal with all of our issues. We won’t be free to get rid of programs in favor of relationships. Parents will be more worried about their kids staying safe than living a life worth dying for. Our churches are too dependent upon every last cent coming into the offering plate because we have so many financial obligations even the slightest drop would be a major catastrophe. All of this hinders true community, innovation and growth. And eventually, when we no longer can offer our kids religious goods and services (because they move off to college or get bored with youth group), kids drop the “church” sphere of their life without much thought or distress. This is been fairly widely documented.
Until we rethink the way we are the body of Christ, it does little good to patch our gushing wounds with band-aids.
What do you see as some of the main issues youth ministry is responding to effectively?
Again, being a big-picture thinker, youth ministry no longer needs to be taught about the value, importance, and responsibility of ministry to and with teenagers. Overall, we no longer need to convince people that youth ministry is more than games and pizza. I think the majority of us have learned that it is a dangerous calling that requires deep care. We aren’t just throwing parties with a devotional tacked on at the end anymore.
In what ways does youth ministry need to change?
In some ways, youth ministry as we know it may just simply have to die. The youth minister’s role needs to become that of theologian, spiritual director, and youth advocate. We need to focus more on building relationships with parents and people who are directly involved in mentoring and teaching youth. We need to incorporate our youth into the wider community in more ways than simply every now and then leading a worship service for the adults. In many of these things, the actual time we spend directly involved with youth will need to decrease.
I know a lot of us don’t really like that idea, but we owe it o our kids to realize we are not the super-hero of youth ministry. Even though we’ve gotten over that old lone ranger stereotype a long time ago with ministry teams and all, the fact is that our ministries are still highly dependent upon us. Some of us may need to turn to bi-vocational youth ministry so we are no longer hindered by the fact that we have to keep our jobs to keep food on the table. We have to emphasize faithfulness and discernment over success.
Of course, all of this change needs to be supported by a wider ecclesiological change in the church discussed in the first question.
In many ways, youth ministry still has a long ways to go. At this stage in my life, I am still young enough, naive enough, and idealist enough to think that it can happen. I still believe that all things are possible through Christ.