If you’ve been in youth ministry for any length of time, you have probably heard of the one-eared Mickey Mouse (surprisingly, I couldn’t find a suitable picture online and didn’t feel like making one myself, so hopefully you are familiar with it). For years now we have spoken out against creating a separate “youth church” attached to the “real” church and argued for the need to include the youth in the full life of the congregation.
I agree that the youth ministry does not need to be a completely self-sustaining, segregated, holistic ministry apart from the wider ministry of a local congregation. As Chap Clark says in this book Hurt, adults in general have abandoned teenagers, and the church does not need to contribute further to that. But honestly, most youth ministries still have some degree of significant autonomy apart from the whole life and ministry of a congregation. It may not be as bad as it once was, but I would venture to say that we still spend a fairly significant amount of time in youth ministry still in the one-eared Mickey Mouse mode.
My contention is that perhaps we should use that to our advantage. Mark Ostreicher makes the point in Youth Ministry 3.0 that, in general, youth culture is on the leading edge of culture in general, and to an extent I think he is right. What if, in the church, we used the youth ministry to lead the congregation-at-large towards habits and practices that they otherwise would not consider. When you introduce change in any group there are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards (see this Wikipedia article for an introduction and The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk for a theological and missional treatment of the subject).
If youth ministers are by nature innovators and teenagers are often innovators and early adopters, then church leadership (youth ministers, pastors, elders, deacons) should look to the youth ministry to set in motion a process of change. Since we are already operating autonomously in certain regards we won’t face some of the hurdles in a youth ministry that you would if you attempted change in the wider congregation. The same thing, and perhaps to an even greater extent, applies to young adult and college ministries.
In a way, approaching youth ministry this way fights the one-eared Mickey Mouse model. If we want the whole church to begin to move in a certain direction and start by focusing on setting that in motion in the youth ministry, it acknowledges that the youth ministry is connected to and significantly influences the whole congregation. I wonder if this might also apply to dying denominations as well.
So what do you think? Can youth ministries become labs of ecclesial innovation and change? Or am I just being manipulative and trying to force top-down change?