Marko brought my attention to the latest issue of Christianity Today, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary issue. Among other things, there is an article on the next 50 years of youth ministry and what it may bring. The typical people give their input: Kenda Dean, Walt Mueller, Chap Clark, Marko, and others. But, as Marko points out in his blog post, the article seems quite lacking in actually addressing what the next 50 years in youth ministry might bring. As I read the article, I felt as if it was describing where youth ministry as a whole is transitioning now rather than giving a whole lot of prophetic direction. So, instead of just complaining that the article fell short of its potential (which is quite understandable, given that you only have so many pages in a magazine you can devote to this issue), Marko asked the youth ministry blogosphere to expound and weigh-in on the topic. So far, quite a few voices have posted their thoughts (and I haven’t read them all yet); you can find a list of people who have responded in Marko’s post. So, now for my $.02.
It’s simply hard for me to think of the next fifty years of youth ministry. As a recent college grad who has been doing full-time, paid youth ministry for about a year now, thinking ahead fifty years if very difficult. I feel like I have learned and experienced so much in regard to ministry in just the last 5 years, and to try and look forward with the limited background that I have is probably very naive. But I shall try nonetheless. As I said, I haven’t had time to read all of the other posts right as of yet, so this may end up being a regurgitation of what people much smarter and more experienced than I have already said.
As Marko pointed out in his post, the 70s and 80s brought with it the professionalization of youth ministry, which has its upsides and its downsides. If current trends continue, it is probable that youth ministry will become de-professionalized, since churches simply will not have the money to pay full-time youth workers. However, I believe that regardless of whether youth ministry retains its professional status or not, there is one thing that we must see in order for youth ministry to remain a Christ-proclaiming, life-giving community in the years to come: the theologization of youth ministry. Without it, youth ministry will simply die.
It’s already been documented in Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching that youth ministry is failing. Instead of having a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, our kids are left with “therapeutic moralistic deism”. Other studies show that when students walk across the stage at their high school graduation, they leave behind not only high school and youth group, but also their whole faith, or the appearance thereof. All the numbers, all the stories, all the experts point to one thing: youth ministry does not, as a whole, produce lifelong faith in students. We have failed. Before long, pastors, church councils, elders, and other church leadership will realize that they are spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to support a failing enterprise and say that the cost is simply too high. Youth ministry as we know it will die.
So how have we gotten here? What have been the causes that drove us to failure? Again, I speak as one who did not witness all of this unfolding, so at best I’m offering educated conjecture. I honestly believe that youth ministry’s obsession with success has driven us to failure. Youth ministry has been built upon and worshipped the idol of success. We want to do “anything possible” to reach this generation for Christ. We are pumped when more and more kids are streaming through our doors. We spend time, money, and effort in designing youth rooms and huge, go-nuts events. We use every means we can get our hands on to bring kids into youth group. We want to be bigger, better, and more innovative than the church down the road, so we copy the church across the country that has been successful. After we have achieved some level of success, we write a book about it, achieving another level of success in our own personal hat. The goal is success. We want souls saved and will stop at no cost to achieve it. The problem is that we have attempted to achieve the proper end (saving souls, bringing forth the kingdom of God) and have not reflected more carefully over the means we are using to accomplish it. Too often, our means contradict our end.
As a result, we have failed. The call of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not success, but faithfulness. Jesus said that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” We need to lose the life of youth ministry because it is killing us. We need to lay down the idol of success, of security, of comfort. And we need to rediscover what it means to be faithful to the gospel.
This is why I say that the theologization of youth ministry in the next 50 years will determine whether or not it will live or die. In order to be faithful to the gospel, and not bound to success, we must be able to discern when we are being faithful and when we are neutering the gospel. Among other things, theology is the practice of discernment. For those who are called as professional youth ministers, we must possess within us the ability to perceive the theological implications of everything that we do. Instead of seeing the goal and achieving it with any means possible, we must determine whether or not our means is theologically sound as well.
An absolutely excellent example of how to think theologically about something can be found on Dan Edelen’s blog Cerulean Sanctum. His timing with this post is impeccable. Instead of me giving some poor examples of how to think theologically, I will point you towards him. His evaluation of Mysecret.tv is a lesson in how we need to evaluate how and why we do things in ministry (Note: Mysecret.tv is not specifically a youth ministry website; in fact, it says it is for those 18 and older. However, Dan’s evaluation of it is a great example in thinking theologically). We must determine if something we do could distort the gospel, if it could reinforce the wrong ideas, if it could encourage sinful behavior, if it stops short of telling the whole truth, if we are simply copying someone else without understanding its implications. Here’s how many youth ministry decisions are made: “Confession is good; it is in the Bible. Students should confess their sin. Thus, we should offer an avenue for confession. Let’s have them post their confessions anonymously on the internet!” Dan Edelen shows us that it isn’t that simple. By taking the easy route on issues that are complex, difficult, and sometimes painful, all we do is distort the gospel. For those who haven’t read Dan’s blog, he is a very gracious and humble writer. He doesn’t attack every semblance of someone who doesn’t agree with him. Keep this in mind as you read his post.
Scot McKight offers his suggestions as to where youth ministry needs to be heading. As a voice I respect and admire, I heed his suggestions but point out that most of his suggestions will only work if the youth minister is a theologian. For his suggestions, go to his site, but I am posting the need for theological reflection in each of them:
- We must have a proper theology of adolescence, family, and Christian community in order to maximize the impact of intergenerational ministry while at the same time allowing students to achieve individuation.
- In order to have programs of personal discipleship, you must have people to do that. In a large youth ministry (actually, in most youth ministries), the youth pastor cannot personally disciple each student. So, the youth pastor will need to train, encourage, and correct other adults in the discipleship process. This is impossible with a proper theological understanding of discipleship and its goals and means.
- In order to teach the Bible, one must understand it, which naturally means “doing theology”.
- Pointing out differences between religions requires theological insight and instinct.
- Thinking critically about cultural and life issues is a theological endeavor by nature.
- To evangelize requires understanding its proper role and purpose, which means considering it theologically.
- Hang time is an important aspect of ministry. In order to justify it to people who wish we were doing something “more productive” (parents, board members, etc), we must provide theological reasons for why hang time is so important. We must also have the instincts to be able to recognize teaching opportunities when they arise within our “hang time”.
- Working with other churches means agreeing to disagree on certain things. To say that some things are less “central” than others requires completing the theological task of acknowledging that you may have been holding on too strongly to certain aspects of your faith.
To do youth ministry well over the next fifty years, we must start the process of becoming theologians. If you have made it this far in the post, hopefully you understand that I am not talking about the need to write systematic theologies for youth or to read from the Institutes as much as the Bible. By becoming theologians, I mean that we must consider the theological implications of all that we do. Now, inherent within that means that we need to decide if those theological implications are acceptable or not, which may mean you need to do some research on certain topics. I also believe that youth ministers should always have something theological that they read in order to continue to learn and to keep their theological instincts sharp. Additionally, volunteers and sponsors should be taught how to think theologically about matters in all of life, and especially within ministry.
In becoming theologians, we lay down the idol of success, the idol which in my opinion has caused our widespread failure. By choosing instead to be faithful to the gospel, in all that we do, regardless of outcome, I believe that we will begin to see success as a natural result. The gospel will be communicated, embraced, and thus lived out. Only time will tell if this trend will actually happen. But I believe that if youth ministry is to continue, youth ministers must take the task of theology at least as seriously as their senior pastor. For the sake of those we serve, lay down the idol of success and begin to reflect on how you may faithfully execute all that you do within ministry. This is the true task of theology within youth ministry.
[As a quick note, most of this post focused on the office of the youth minister and his need to become a theologian. However, even if there is not a paid youth staff person, the people who work with the youth in the church need to be people who think theologically about what they do. The same rules about success and theology will apply, it will just be more difficult for them to find the time to do the task of theological reflection and education. But its importance is not diminished.]