Over the past 13 years, I have ministered to teenagers. Youth ministry is challenging, yet rewarding.
Figuratively speaking, I must have attended every camp, every concert, every retreat, and every youth rally known to man! I have laughed, cried, hurt and rejoiced with more teens than I can count. They have taught me far more than I have ever taught them.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching aspect of this ministry is watching multitudes of youth abandon the church after high school.
While statistics vary, the consensus is that more youth leave the church after graduation than stay (most stats say over 60 percent). A vast amount of ink has been spilt over how to correct this problem.
I can offer no simple solution. It’s a complex issue. However, I know this: The church must change its approach if it desires a different outcome.
A paper written over 80 years ago might provide a refreshing perspective, helping sway the pendulum in the right direction.
Many consider the founder of modern youth ministry to be the German pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He loved teenagers. He spent much time discipling this age group.
While in London during the early 1930s, he wrote a little-known piece titled, "Eight Theses on Youth Work." I think you will see the timelessness of the piece. The following is a paraphrase of each point with my summary in parenthesis.
1. The future of the church is not in its teenagers but in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the task of the church to capture the attention of its youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God to them. (Youth ministry is about teaching youth the Scripture, not filling them full of pizza and developing entertainment that competes with the world for their attention.)
2. The question is not, “What is youth ministry, and what role does it play within the church?” Rather the question is, “What is the church and what role does it play in the community of faith?” (Youth is not a department. Youth is the gateway into comprehensive church life. They need to be involved all over the church – in almost every area.)
3. The church is filled with those whom God has torn away from the Kingdom of Darkness. They listen to the Word of God in assembly as they sacrifice, confess and intercede together. Only those inside are allowed to judge one another, not those outside. (Don’t ask, “Will the youth like this?” Ask, “Will this grow them spiritually?”)
4. The church is the only hope to the generational problem. Youth are not above any age group. Youth are to serve in the church by listening, hearing, and practicing the Word of God. Youthful nature or radical obedience must be submissive to the Holy Spirit and the local Body of Christ. This is not old-fashioned thinking – this is biblical thinking. (Youth ministry that isn’t multigenerational is doing more harm than good. When age groups are always separate in church, it’s not the true church. Titus 2 has been long-forgotten in many congregations.)
5. The Bible does not put a privileged label on youth. (Youth don’t know everything and they need to embrace that fact. They are no more important and special than any other age group in the church.)
6. The way youth ministry is possible is to focus upon their salvation and have them hear the Word of God. The church owes this to its teenagers. To do anything else is to betray the church. (Discipleship only happens through the Scripture. Generally, the deeper they go, the more solid their foundation becomes. To do less is to take advantage of the teenager and the church who assigned its leaders with this task.)
7. Youth may protest against their elders. However, to do so must be done with humility, grace and love, submitting themselves to the Scriptures as the final authority. (Disagreements are going to happen. Older people certainly can be wrong. Youth must handle the disagreement with class and integrity.)
8. There are no church associations; only the church. There are no youth associations; only youth who follow Christ. Youth associations discredit the cause of the church and have only relative significance. (Does a student’s life revolve around the church, or does the church revolve around the student? Authentic community and true fellowship is only found in the local church. Families should plan their schedule around the church, not demand the church conform to their every request. A teenager’s closest friends should be within their own Faith-Family, not their after-school club, sports team or neighborhood. Para-church ministry can be helpful only when they recognize their role is a distant second to the local congregation. No substitute exists for the local church.)
Talk to any pastor or youth pastor and they will tell you that the current format of youth ministry is in serious need of reform. We need a paradigm shift, and we need it today!
As we reflect on Bonhoeffer’s suggestions, it can be summarized in one question: Do you really believe what the Bible teaches about ministry? Either you believe the Scripture is sufficient for discipleship, or you believe modern methods and tactics have superseded the Bible. You must choose one or the other.
Andy Waits is the youth pastor at First Baptist Church-Springville.