How vital is theological training for youth pastors?

FORT WORTH–Should increased theological training and even biblical languages be a priority in training future youth pastors to minister to students and their families?

Weighing in on a discussion initiated at the Youth Ministry Forum held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December, Christian educators and youth leaders contacted by the Southern Baptist TEXAN offered opinions on specialized youth ministry training offered by seminaries.

During the forum, state and national leaders in student work called on churches to insist potential candidates for any ministry position in the church be adequately trained to handle and communicate God’s Word.

“Where churches have approached youth ministry in a fun-and-games capacity, where they have minored on biblical teaching and doctrinal issues, the paradigm needs to be changed,” said David Allen, dean of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, in an interview with the TEXAN.

“And I think we’re seeing the fruit of that. When students are brought in and catered to from an entertainment standpoint, they graduate from high school and have no foundation. When they go off to college they aren’t strongly committed to the church and to the Lord, and we lose them,” Allen said.

With recent statistics indicating teens and college students are disconnecting from the local church, many forum speakers agreed a paradigm shift is needed in youth ministry strategies.

“What we’re doing is not working,” said Alvin Reid, author and professor of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Speaking at the forum, Reid suggested that despite the unprecedented variety of resources available to youth pastors, the methodology of most churches is failing to transform youth culture. “[I] question whether we’re preparing youth to make it through their first year of college, let alone life.”

While there are multiple root issues behind the declining youth involvement after high school, some forum participants blamed the lack of theological training required of youth ministers. Instead of focusing on Scripture application, Reid said a typical youth minister learns ministry strategies from another youth pastor, who in turn learned his strategy from another youth minister.

“It’s not intentional but they don’t have the desire or ability to do theological reflection,” he said.

Richard Ross, Southwestern Seminary’s assistant dean of the division of human growth and development and a professor of student ministry, likened the importance of proper training for youth pastors to the career-specific training required for medical personnel.

“Too few student ministers receive formal training for student ministry. That is as weighty a statement as saying too few surgeons receive formal training,” Ross told the TEXAN, adding that degrees with courses specific for student ministry are necessary to adequately prepare youth pastors for service in the local church.

“If my senior high son has a car crash, I want that young EMT in the back of the ambulance to have plenty of training to draw from,” he said, drawing a parallel to the training of youth pastors. “Why would I want less when I place my son under the leadership of a student minister?”

Johnny Derouen, associate professor of student ministry at Southwestern, believes a successful youth ministry is one that “challenges students theologically, so they can … stand up in this culture, understand their faith and speak it clearly.”

But one Southwestern professor is concerned that the popularly cited surveys–some say youth are leaving churches at a rate of 75-88 percent after high school–might lead some to reject strategies for training that are already producing students committed to the cause of Christ.

Wesley Black, associate dean for Ph.D. studies and professor of student ministry at Southwestern, has trained youth pastors there since 1983. Black told the TEXAN he worries the various studies dominating the headlines in youth pastor education do not provide a sincere vehicle for discussing youth ministry strategy.

“We start out with one figure in mind that we are losing almost 100 percent of our kids and therefore [believe] something is wrong with our youth ministry,” Black said. “That is the thing that troubles me the most. A lot of our kids are dropping out, but we don’t need to throw everything out of the window because of [those studies]. There are a lot of good things that we are doing.”

Recently, Black surveyed 1,300 students between the ages of 18-30 to determine why students who are active in church during their teen years either remain faithful following high school graduation or drop out altogether. As a result of his findings, Black said he believes youth strategies should focus on several things:

>helping students know how to choose friends and become influencers in their community of friends;

>helping students obtain spiritual depth through discipleship;

>deepening a student’s relationship with his or her family; and

>giving students opportunities to form intergenerational relationships in the local church.

Black presented his findings in the article “Creating a Student Ministry that Lasts,” published in LifeWay’s “Leading Student Ministry” winter 2007 edition and the “Journal of Youth Ministry” in spring 2006.

Opinions vary concerning the role seminaries should play in training youth ministry workers. Black said seminary training and youth strategies should be re-focused rather than re-invented.

“I really think student ministry should extend one year past high school graduation,” he said, noting this would hold high school seniors accountable to find a church home in college. “We know them, we know their families well. We as student ministers are in the best position to continue nurturing those kids as they step into the world of young adulthood.”

Others believe that youth strategies that fail to incorporate increased biblical exposition will miss the mark.

Eric Bancroft, associate pastor of high school ministry at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., presented a paper at the forum connecting the lack of theological training for youth ministers to the failure of a youth ministry.

“A youth pastor in his mid-20s might have all the zeal and love, and in some cases, personality that will reach audiences. While they can be helpful vehicles, it has to come from the Word of God. Any ministry, whether it be youth, single, or senior citizen ministries, that is not based upon the Word of God is going to be limited at best,” Bancroft told the TEXAN.

“Much of what passes for teaching today is nothing more than lessons on morality that further insulates our need for the gospel,” he said. “We have replaced the gospel with morality, and theology with experience.”

Because many youth ministers lack theological training, Bancroft said local churches often expect them to fulfill a role they are not trained to fulfill.

“Where does the problem lie? With the youth pastor? Or is the problem with asking him to do a job that is pastoral in its major emphasis?” Bancroft said, adding that a pastor leading any specific ministry area must be trained in the Word.

Along with a change in the education and training of youth ministers, Bancroft also advocated a change in the overall role of the youth pastor in the life of the church—a shift from programming to a more pastoral function.

“Unfortunately, youth pastors are hired today more for creative ability, communication skills, personality, and to connect with teenagers,” Bancroft said, explaining that most youth pastors “give entertaining talks instead of preaching God’s Word faithfully.”

In his forum presentation, Bancroft challenged participants to find explicit evidence of the role of the youth pastor in the Bible. In preparing for youth ministry, the biblical guidelines for the pastor should be followed.

“[We] do find the description of a pastor, though. He is to teach, preach, protect, pray, love, counsel, care, correct, lead and overall model for the flock according to Scripture.”

But the failure of youth pastors to teach expositionally is not entirely their own fault, Bancroft said.

“So often parents, pastors and students alike judge [youth] pastors more on attendance and how many decisions were made at the last gathering.”

“Hiring a man to be pastor to youth and their families, but judging his success against others standards, produces immature pastors,” Bancroft said, adding that these pressures leave little time to do important things like “train godly staff, counsel families, and preparing expository sermons.”

“I think what you need to see in a man’s training is more than a knowledge of educational systems and more than a study of sociology and the related sciences. There needs to be a great deal of time spent on handling the Word of God, I think a youth pastor should study languages just like a guy who wants to be a senior pastor, because both will have a teaching outlet.”

In Texas, youth pastors have two degree options at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The master of arts in Christian education (MACE) is the traditional degree offered to youth pastors. Southwestern’s MACE is a 64-hour degree comprised of 26 hours of core curricula, 21 hours of administrative courses, and 12 hours in the student’s concentration area. Among the core classes, students are required to take evangelism, hermeneutics, systematic theology, and surveys of both the Old Testament and New Testament.

In contrast to the MACE, Southwestern Seminary also offers a master of divinity with a concentration in student ministry (M.Div.). Weightier in its core requirements, the 91-hour M.Div. allots 36 hours to biblical studies, of which 21 are slated for biblical languages. The degree also includes 15 hours of theological studies, nine hours of philosophical studies, and courses in the areas of evangelism, preaching and applied ministry/teaching. An additional 14 hours are designated for a concentration in student ministry.”

“In the educational ministries school the curriculum has been revised over the last six or seven years to include more theological training,” Allen said while noting that biblical languages are not required. “In the school of theology, regardless of concentration, all students have to take Greek and Hebrew.”

For students who desire to persevere through the extra hours of the M.Div. degree, Allen said they would still benefit from the instruction of educational ministries professors such as Richard Ross, Johnny Derouen, and Wes Black.

Despite offering two degrees, Allen said potential students are encouraged to pursue a full course of study with M.Div.

“It prepares them at a more in-depth level,” he said. “The M.Div. degree [provides] a solid foundation theologically and in the area of biblical languages.”

Allen said students are also encouraged to pursue degrees that will sustain their ministry through the course of their lives.

“I would tell an incoming student that in all likelihood you are not going to be in youth ministry all of your life. You may be a youth minister until you are 40. I would ask them, ‘What are you going to do for the last 35 years of you ministry? What if God called you to be a pastor? You don’t have all the theological training that would be helpful and needful especially to someone in the pastorate,’” Allen explained.

To encourage students considering youth work to enroll in the M.Div. program, Allen said he would speak from personal experience.

“My first five years in service, while still in college and seminary, I was a youth minister. And then after that, I became a pastor. So I am grateful I did the master of divinity program to train me. And most youth ministers will not be [youth ministers] in 10 years.”

In directing students into the appropriate degree program, Ross said it is important to listen to the student.

“If the student plans to approach student ministry primarily as an equipper of the saints, we encourage them to study the MACE degree. The same is true if they plan to build ministries centered around discipleship and mentoring,” he said. “Also, students who love teaching the Word of God and want to teach it wll seem to prosper in the MACE program.”

For students who view youth ministry as a “short-term calling to be followed by going into the pastorate,” Ross said he recommends the M.Div. program.
“Someone who will lead the church as senior pastor certainly needs the fuller complement of preaching and theology courses,” he said, while insisting that both of Southwestern’s degree programs for youth ministry give students “the ability to think reflectively.”

Black, who has committed his life ministry to youth, said student ministry education should adequately prepare youth pastors for engaging the entire church.

“No matter what kind of degree you have, you need to have an understanding of all the age groups in a church. You need to understand what is going on in the lives of those middle-age adult parents, because middle-age adults have a lot of issues, problems and stress,” he said. Black said he believes skills in counseling, teaching and administration should be emphasized in every degree program.

“Sometimes we tend to think youth ministry is nothing more than calendar planning and project-event planning. But that is so shallow,” Black said. “We need to have a thorough understanding of biblical knowledge and think theologically about what we are doing in youth ministry. But whether that involves going as far as biblical languages—they are great to know, but I wouldn’t put that in the top priority.” Explaining that biblical languages are necessary for those preaching every Sunday, Black said “there are a lot of hermeneutical tools you can use that can serve you very well.”

“I’m not saying biblical languages are not necessary; I’m just not saying they are necessary. There are some other areas of student ministry that are more burning issues right now. For example, how to relate to parents of teens, knowing how to equip and energize leaders, and knowing what goes on in the lives of teenagers, those are very important areas. And in order to minister to those, you have to have a good, strong biblical basis for all you are doing. Bible courses like systematic theology are very important.”

When faced with his own degree choice, Bancroft chose to pursue a master of divinity from The Master’s Seminary, despite the additional course work required.

Although Bancroft doesn’t advocate everyone jumping from an M.A. to an M.Div., he soes believe a minister’s primary responsibility is to the Word of God, regardless of ministry area.

“A young man should be making sure he is taking classes that help him know the Word and proclaim the Word accurately,” he said.

For Bancroft, the extra courses equipped him for his own ministry at Grace Community Church, where students are offered expositional Bible studies on Sunday mornings in both fellowship groups and corporate worship services under the senior pastor, John MacArthur.

During the school year, students attend a regional Bible study spread out around the Los Angeles area on Wednesday nights.

Also, students are given a study guide to read during the week that connects lessons from Sunday School to Wednesday evening studies. The weekly guide includes daily reading assignments and homework. Students recently worked through the Christian classic “Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan.
“This accomplishes two things. It is a daily devotional and helps them come into Wednesday night being primed and asking, ‘How do I apply this to my living?’”
During the summer, the classes merge for a special study. This summer, Bancroft led students through a series on the major figures of church history.
Acknowledging biblical exposition as part of the missing link in youth ministry, Allen said Southwestern will continue to lead the way in educating tomorrow’s youth ministers.
“What we need are youth pastors who are committed to the exposition of Scripture. There is nothing more exciting than the Scripture when it is taught in an expositional way that is both creative and life changing. That is a vital ingredient to a successful youth ministry,” he said. “We will continue to strengthen [our programs] and move toward teaching how to be a good communicator and expositor of Scripture in a creative fashion so they can do biblical teaching.”

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