Fall Newsletter Excerpt | Obsessed With Youth Ministry

Written by Pastor Ben Wimmers, Pastor of Youth and Family

Kristina and I recently visited with friends who were evaluating their church and whether they would continue to worship there or look for a new community. One of their concerns about their current church was the lack of a youth program. Their daughter is two years old. While they are over 10 years away from sending her to a youth group, the fact that their church doesn’t have one creates a point of concern. This highlights a feeling that people across generations have about their church. The overwhelming mood in the church (particularly in North America and Europe) is that youth ministry is important, a necessity for a church. Why is that?

As I have settled into my role here at Living Hope, this has been part of my wondering. Why is everyone so obsessed with youth and youthfulness? It is not a difficult task to come up with the most common thoughts about the importance of youth and youth ministry. Young people are the future of the church. We need to keep young people in the church. Youth group is a place to build relationships other Christian youth. The youth learn lessons and build faith that will sustain them when they go away for school or enter a non-Christian workforce.

My issue with many of these answers is that they are born out of a scarcity mindset, the fear that there will not be enough youth with faith to keep the church going. We can see how a scarcity mindset has affected the approach of so much of Youth Ministry. Youth groups have adopted an attractional model, being focused on getting the youth to attend. The prevailing thought would be that if they came to youth group, then they will have faith. Attendance = faith in Jesus. In this model, the job of the youth pastor became centered on cultivating consistent attendance to youth group. But as a familiar saying goes, “sitting in your garage doesn’t make you a car”. Spending time in community with other Christians is important, but it cannot be the sure marker for faith or the only means of formation.

All of this invites the question: is there a better way? What is the point of youth ministry and are there better reasons to care about it?

Andrew Root (yes, this guy again) offers up some suggestions in his books Faith Formation in a Secular Age and The End of Youth Ministry? 

He suggests that to understand what the purpose of youth ministry is, we need to examine why it has come to occupy such a large portion of church budgets and mental space. It can be presented simply (of course it is more complex than what I am about to say). The presence of youth (and young adults) in your church indicates that your church is relevant. Youth have decided what is relevant in our society since the 1960’s. Think about how much advertising space is dedicated to youth or to helping parents care for their youth. We can see that played out in the way churches must continue to adapt to whatever the trendiest social media apps are. Churches chase after this youthful spirit, again out of fear, that if they cannot maintain their attraction to youth, then the youth will go to the hip church down the road. To a degree, this is true. A church like ours cannot compete with a church that has a million-dollar budget. They will have a better social media presence, more exciting events, and be able to attract a larger crowd leading to a snowballing effect on attendance. This is going to sound cruel, but the presence of youth becomes more important than the actual person. It doesn’t matter who they are, it just matters that they are there and visible so that the church can claim relevance and vitality. People are content to sit on the outside of the lives of the youth, feeling grateful for the few staff and volunteers that participate in youth ministry, believing that is enough, or believing that we are not ‘youthful’ enough for the youth to want to spend time with us.

What can we do to change our thinking?

Instead of trying to make of youth program “youthful” so that it is attractive and hip, Root pushes people to think about it in a different way. His conclusion is that youth groups exist for joy. The means of cultivating joy as a group comes from sharing stories together. Story reveals something of ourselves to others and invites them to connect with us on a deeper level. Joy is the driving force behind youth ministry because Joy is the experience of the inner being of the triune God. Joy is not about a good feeling, or an uplifting story, but of what it means to dwell in the presence of the Trinity, even in the worst of circumstances. It moves beyond a youth-attendance based model of ministry, and digs down to a God-centered model facilitated through relationship.

Youth Ministry, a place to cultivate joy, becomes centered on the story of scripture and the way that story plays out in our lives. Youth Ministry becomes a place where the youth should encounter God and be formed by dwelling in his presence. This kind of youth group is not going to make any headlines for being innovative because it is setting aside innovation in favour of being together, in prayer, scripture, and story for the purpose of joy. It means that a vibrant youth group is not the responsibility of the youth pastor or the budget they must work with. It is about the people from the congregation that come out to spend time with the youth and sharing their experience of dwelling with God, their experience of joy. At its best, my role is to facilitate a time where these stories of joy can be shared.

Youth ministry extends far beyond our meetings on Thursday nights. It means that every interaction you have with youth, it a chance to share your story of experiencing the joy of God.