A second wind for youth ministry

Our special report on youth ministry is of great interest to me. My first five local church ministries were with youth (three during school, two after) and I loved it. I thought it was important then and I think it is now. Additionally, I have raised three kids of my own. My last one is in her last year of our church’s youth ministry. I’m a participant and a close observer for a variety of reasons.

It’s heartening to know that there are thoughtful spokesmen out there for revitalizing the church’s ministry to teenagers. I greatly admire Voddie Baucham, Alvin Reid, and Richard Ross, even when they don’t completely agree on the particulars of renewal. All three of these men have been saying things that seem essential as any church of any size considers its work with junior high and high school students.

As a parent, volunteer and interested observer, I offer some traits I’d like to see in every church youth ministry. Reform requires a set of attitudes and priorities rather than mere resources.

First, youth ministry must be more focused. While activities and trips are not necessarily bad, they tend to become the tail wagging the dog in youth ministry. Why have a youth ministry? What important thing should this portion of our church’s work accomplish? If our primary, or even secondary goal is to provide an alternative to something another organization is doing?to keep them off the streets prom night or Halloween?I’d say don’t bother.

There are some concerns churches have that other institutions do not. There are some things that your church can do better than the schools, Boy Scouts, YMCA, or other clubs. Do those things first and always. If your stated goal is to see kids come to Christ and follow him, make sure nothing in your ministry waters that down or competes for precious time with that priority.

One priority that church ministries should have is the teaching of doctrine as part of a thorough discipleship strategy. Youth ministries should provide a solid doctrinal base for students who are growing in their relationship with God. No other organization except the home will make this a priority. A timely result of this training will be personal “ownership” of the students’ faith. They will not be able to easily leave behind a faith they understand and have built into their view of the world.

Today’s richness of resources and successful models is a two-edged sword. The urgency to be big or edgy can drive out old-school basics, and it has done so to a large degree?even among ministries that have little chance of being trendsetters. Careful focus helps guard against this dissipation of impact.

Second, youth ministry must be challenging to the students. I remember how cool it was when my pastor during high school gave me important things to do. He expected me to know things and do things I’d come to expect only of adults. It made me want to live up to his expectations.

Most high schools do a better job of that than churches. Boy Scout troops do a better job of that than churches. Most homes also expect more of their teenaged kids than is expected of them at church. That says something unfortunate about the importance we place on evangelism, missions, discipleship, and the other things on which our churches might focus.

Third, youth ministry must be family focused. No ministry of our churches supersedes the responsibility of parents to train their children. That’s why strengthening families should be the first focus of youth ministry. Practically speaking, nothing our ministries can do in a few hours each week can compare to the influence of families. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good. Either way, it is a reality our ministries must embrace.

Parents should be very involved in setting the course for a church youth ministry. It is the work of pastoral leadership to not merely allow but to actually obtain that parental direction of ministries intended to help them teach their children. The idea is that while church ministry leaders should have a more global view of discipleship and the needs of church members, the parents know the needs of their own families. If the youth ministry is to have an impact on families, they must find out what tools and help the families need.
That sets the course for the church’s ministry?the gap between an ideal outcome and the ability of individual families to get there on their own.

Youth ministers should become experts on resources for parents and families. These resources can be for use in the home and for use in church-based presentations. If families are not thinking systematically about teaching their kids the whole counsel of God, encourage them to do so by providing a thorough selection of resources. If parents need help in studying and teaching the Bible, show them how to do it just as if they were youth Sunday School teachers.

Some ministries aimed at men, or fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, should be coordinated through the children’s or youth ministries. Ministry for families should be often addressed to family units rather than just parents or just children. Youth ministry must not usually be something the kids do while the rest of the family does something else.

This is also a place where the attention of the church’s pastor should be faithfully directed. A younger youth minister may face difficulties being a parenting resource to older parents.

These ideas are not exhaustive but do give an idea of what a serious focus on families will mean for youth ministry.

Fourth, youth ministry must be pastoral. I do not believe youth ministry should be a program of the church or even a vaguely defined “ministry.” It is a pastoral ministry to parents, volunteers, saved students, and lost students?in that order.

Our basic biblical qualifications for youth ministers should not be lower than that for pastors. His training should be that of a pastor, not an education minister. His work should be that of a pastor, not that of a therapist or activities director. Those engaged in pastoral ministry are obliged by their calling to spend time shoring up their own knowledge and skills by means of self study regardless of the focus of their formal training. This is even more crucial when a pastor lacks formal training in pastoral ministry.

Pastors have a ministry of the Word. They prepare the saints for ministry and preach the gospel to the lost. That ministry should be applied diligently to parents, volunteers, and students.

Fifth, youth ministry should heavily concentrate on the impartation and application of biblical knowledge. It’s a teaching and preaching ministry. The teaching of biblical knowledge without application is incomplete. The application of knowledge the students do not have for themselves is far worse. I think it is one reason we find ourselves failing to reach our kids for Christ.

The Word of God has power that no method or explanation of can boast. A Christian who knows the Word and doesn’t live it will be convicted by the words of Scripture. The Holy Spirit will apply it to his life whether a man does or not. It is irreplaceable. A Baptist assembly where the Bible is merely read for 30 minutes is more significant than one where a smidgen of Scripture is buried under very well-prepared, but ancillary sights and sounds. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation but if you find yourself having to choose, choose power over flash.

Sixth, youth ministry should be a higher priority of the church. But you say, “Of course it is; we give them money and a great staff.” Good as this is, it is not all there is to priority. Youth ministry is also enhanced by a time investment by the church’s pastor. He doesn’t have to come to lock-ins (no one should, actually), but he should be aware of the youth ministry in detail and help the youth minister keep hi

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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