by Jean Lehn Epp, Interim Coordinator of Youth Ministry Resources - With the influence and success of Youth for Christ and other parachurch organizations in the 1950’s, churches started to develop and model their own programs for youth. The goal of these programs was to attract youth to the church through fun activities and games then hook them into committing their lives to Christ. The role of the leader was to be an activity coordinator and magnet attracting and keeping youth within the church. These types of programs were a result of a movement that recognized adolescents as a unique group, who are no longer children, but not really adults. While this event oriented model addressed some of the developmental needs of youth it neglected to take into consideration the spiritual needs of youth or the long journey of growing faith. Through messy game nights, high profile speakers, or Christian bands youth were encouraged to be excited about the church.
What happens when youth loose interest?
How can leaders continually produce interesting and fun things to do with the youth without burning out or running out of ideas?
In this model the youth group is seen as the entry point into the life of the church. While being seeker and community friendly this model downplays the Biblical, theological and spiritual role of the church. While churches could benefit from embracing joy and a sense of play, youth group can be a very distant experience from the rest of the life of the church including its worship. The real difficulty with this model comes from its leadership. There is great pressure for events and activities to continue to escalate in order to capture the imagination of the youth. What happens when youth loose interest? How can leaders continually produce interesting and fun things to do with the youth without burning out or running out of ideas? How are the challenges and issues that teens struggle with being addressed or given attention if space is only being given to the fun stuff?
A relating model of youth ministry tries to address some of these issues. It views youth group as a space to build relationships modeled on Jesus and his disciples. The goal is to connect personally with each youth, be a major influence in their lives and to build a close community within the youth group itself. The role of the leader is to be an adult friend to youth and create an atmosphere in the group that is friendly and welcoming. This model is also youth pastor/worker focused and can become youth group centric. The youth become close like a family and are receptive to learning. They may be more open to the invitation to follow Christ and become baptized because they trust the leader and each other. The gift of this model is that the youth group becomes a safe place for youth to express themselves and their issues. Youth group is like a small group within the church. There is the potential for the church to become an extended family to youth with all the support they need as well as a safe place to explore questions of faith. What happens when the youth pastor/worker leaves their position? It can feel like a divorce by leaving the youth feeling hurt and abandoned. Challenges can arise if the youth pastor/worker is the only adult teens in the church relate to and in doing so isolate the youth from the rest of the church.
Churches need to do the hard work of examining their gifts and move toward being intentional about their ministry with youth.
In our current climate, sticking to one model too closely can do more harm than good. There isn’t a perfect model of youth ministry that will work in every church. Churches need to do the hard work of examining their gifts and move toward being intentional about their ministry with youth that meets the needs of youth but also forms and shapes their spiritual growth. Work toward diversity and balance between activities, engaging the bible, spiritual practices, integrating youth in worship and missional practices. Create spaces and experiences for youth to experiment with, participate in, and interact with. This will foster a sense of community as well and creating these spaces may mean that we will lead things that encourage us to step outside of our comfort zone or educate ourselves on something we are not familiar with.
Is what you are doing in your ministry with youth:
- Preparing them for future participation in the church or are they participating now?
- Are you the center of the youth group or is God the center of the youth group?
- Is the focus of the group coming to the church or sending them out from the church?
- Are youth disciples in training or is everything being done for them or to them?
- Are youth being equipped to navigate current culture with the eyes of Christ or are they getting messages to leave their everyday life outside of the church?
- Are youth being engaged by the biblical story and see themselves in it or are they viewing the Bible as old fashioned and archaic?
- Are youth being segregated from church life or are they being integrated into the life of the church?
- Are youth getting the spiritual/ developmental support they need or are they feeling that they can’t express their challenges and struggles?
- Check out the blog by Fuller Youth Institute entitled “People are not projects.” They suggest some helpful perspectives on good listening practices and approaches to working with youth which are useful for leaders and well as mentors of youth.
- Bob Yoder has compiled, A History of Mennonite Youth Ministry:1885-2005, if you are looking to develop a sense of where we have come from in our ministry with youth in the Mennonite Church.