I have had the privilege of connecting with many pastors, youth pastors and youth workers over the last few years. This thing called youth ministry is such a fast paced, ever-evolving challenge.
I heard John Savage, the principle and director of a private school in Kentucky (Academy for Individual Excellence) speak on the topic of public school and youth ministry a couple of years ago. He said youth ministry is not God's idea. I whole heartedly agree with his premise, "youth ministry is a response to a deficiency in the church and the family."
John said he had multiple children (I think six) and made the point that when he said that we didn't automatically think that his wife gave birth to six children at once, which can happen but doesn't usually, but that she had six children over time. This is how a family works. You have an age variation in the kids so that the older children have the opportunity to inspire the younger ones and the younger children have someone and something to aspire to. We don't have families in litters where all of the children are the same age. It can work, but not as well, because it's not the natural order for humans.
What we've done is set aside God's model, the model that the family works in and instead adopted a litter mentality. We take kids in one age bracket and put them together, separating them completely from the other age brackets. There is a very limited avenue for these kids to be involved in ministry using this model because the natural multilevel inspiration is removed. Also, we create a situation where the kids are not aspiring or inspiring each other, they are competing with their peers, always working to establish a pecking order. In some ways the traditional model that youth ministry follows actually strengthens the deficiency instead of removing it.
There should definitely be a time where teens in a particular age bracket should come together to discuss life application concepts that are age/maturity appropriate, but this should not be the only avenue for youth ministry. You could do this in a small group setting or maybe as a Sunday School class, but there should be a time where the age barriers are removed and you bring them all together for youth ministry. This is the time for you to empower the older kids to lead worship and be the inspiration for the younger people following in their wake.
Keith is a youth worker I recently connected with and he brings a valid thought and question to the "youth ministry table" that really shows how this translates to the church as a whole: "The main thing that I believe our youth struggle with, is the fear of being judged by the older saints, and the lack of examples by parents. How do I go about freeing them from that?"
"The fear of being judged by the older saints"
The fear that they feel is valid and I believe the current youth ministry model perpetuates it. By completely segregating the youth from the rest of the church we create a generational divide that feels insurmountable. This is another example of the Church following popular culture. Youth culture has vilified our elders as a group of rigid, judgmental, and stupid people who should be shunned or tolerated only at a distance. We inadvertently strengthen that thought in our youth when we segment them into litters with no overlap with elders. The elders don't get a true picture of what is going on with the youth. All they here is the noise and most of their interaction with the youth is an awkward pass in the foyer. Yes, the elders could do a better job of reaching out to the young people in your church, but maybe they don't, not because they don't want to, but because they feel the wall of separation that WE built. "WE" being the leaders, not the young people.
Love is dammed by ignorance. I spelled that right, I am not trying slip a cussword into my blog. The youth do not feel love from their elders and do not give love to them because we created a retainer wall and called it youth ministry. Read God's idea in the scripture and you'll see elders always among the youth, a well of wisdom in a place of honor. They didn't always agree or understand the generation coming up, but they didn't have to, they gave love to people they knew by association and the younger generation honored and loved them in response.
"The lack of examples by parents"
We have a disproportionate idea of the role of the youth ministry. Youth ministry does not and never should try to displace parents. Parents are examples everyday to their kids. Think of it this way, church is twice a week, life is everyday. Everything we do as a youth ministry should be from the perspective that we are a help to the family and that the parent is the ultimate authority in the lives of the teens we are working with. It's the same misunderstanding that American popular culture has with freedom. Our nation took "Freedom of religion" and changed it to "Freedom from religion." Church culture changed youth ministry from a haven for parents to bring their teens into a place where teens have a haven from parents. This is wrong and divisive.
The parents of your teens should be an integral part of everything you do as a youth ministry. They have a vested interest in your success. If you are a youth pastor in a church you are not really the youth pastor, you are the assistant youth pastor. The real youth pastor is the parent, you are their helper.
Here's what you should consider doing: Invite the parents to be involved in the youth ministry. Let them know they are welcome to any youth service or event as honored guests. You should spend as much time as possible with them, getting to know them. You will gain their confidence and more importantly you will gain a better appreciation for the struggles they go through on an everyday basis being a parent, learning, usually on the fly, how to lead their child closer to Christ. What you do twice a week that you have hours to prepare for, they do everyday in real time.
"How do I go about freeing them from that?"
Pull the dam walls down. Yes, that is also spelled right, goodness, you'd think I was a sailor and cussed all of the time. You as the pastor or youth pastor have got to pull down the retainer walls. I'm not talking about homogenizing youth ministry so that it fits every age bracket in your church. Your seniors should know that if and when they come to a youth service it will be designed and geared for the youth. Lights, music, teaching, the whole package. If you try to make it work for everybody, it won't work well for anybody. They don't have to like it, but it would be good for them to understand your vision. That being the case, you probably won't get a huge group of seniors into your youth service, so you need to create other avenues where they do have an opportunity to develop meaningful relationships. (I have some ideas on that and we have done a few things, that will be another blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this as well.)
Change your position when it comes to how you think about the parents of the teens you are working with. They have an enormous job and you can be an asset to them only if you realize that they aren't supposed to be on your team, you are on theirs. When that shift happens, you'll realize that youth ministry theory is very hard to apply in everyday real life and that the young people should see you as the biggest fan that their parents have. Do they always do it right? Of course not, they're human and they are going to make mistakes. My guess though is that in the time it took us as youth pastors to process the thought of laying down our lives for these kids, these parents would have already stepped forward with their hands raised.
The freedom we are looking to give these kids may be pushing against the other side of the wall we created and called youth ministry. Now the question changes: What will you do differently?
2009. Armando Heredia
Armando serves as co-pastor of Tapestry in Granite City, IL and is an artist and author.