This is still the most frequent question that I am presented with everywhere I speak. Not every inquisition is antagonistic towards the discipline of local church youth ministry. However, every time the question is raised, I can’t help but become defensive. I’ve surrendered my life to equip leaders for the mission of reaching adolescents and their families with the Gospel of Christ and in pursuit of making disciples of every young person whose life has been rearranged by the saving work of Christ. So when the validity of youth ministry is challenged, my gut response is to come out swinging.
But, instead of arguing the issue, let’s look at the Bible and discover what it tells us in regards to adolescents and the Gospel mission. The HomeWord Center for Youth & Family, (Jim Burns, founder and president) responded to this question and their response offers a great perspective.
Youth groups are not in the Bible. But, keep in mind that just because something is not specifically commanded or found in the Bible does not make them anti-Biblical or inappropriate. Give it some thought. You can probably come up of lots of examples of how churches – their activities, groupings, things they use – aren’t specifically spelled out in the Bible – but are helpful in fulfilling Biblical mandates and principles.
Youth ministry is a legitimate, needed area of ministry for the church. The church is mandated biblically to motivate and care for the spiritual growth of all people (see Colossians 1:28). The church is also commanded to reach out to others with the good news of Jesus Christ and to teach everyone to obey His commandments (see Matthew 28:19). Adolescents are people included in these mandates. The Bible doesn’t envision that adolescents function apart from the inter-generational nature of the church. Believers, young and old, are all a part of the One Body of Christ and are necessary for its proper function (see 1 Corinthians 12). Yet, because of the cultural distinctiveness and legitimacy of adolescence as a unique time of life, a specialization of ministry to youth is in no way theologically forbidden. Consider a foreign mission analogy as an example: English speaking missionaries spend months – to years – getting to know foreign language and culture – so they can communicate the gospel in a way that foreign peoples will understand. They do not try to speak in English with people who don’t understand English. Similarly, youth culture is very much a separate sub-set of culture. It makes good missional and pastoral sense (see 1 Corinthians 9) to recognize and minister to the specific spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual and educational needs of adolescents.
Still, it must be said that there is no doubt that parents, not youth ministries, have the primary responsibility for raising kids (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9). Youth ministries should serve as partners with parents in equipping and caring for young people. (Note that while the practical direction of Deut. 6 is to parents – the address is given to “Hear, O Israel” – which also implies the support of the spiritual community.
Churches and youth ministries, during our lifetime, have not always done a great job in supporting parents – and have at times have actually served to keep families apart and have not helped parents interact with their teenagers. Today, however, there is a fresh sense of the importance of family in the church and many youth ministries are helping to partner with families and parents in some very positive ways.
Having served as a youth pastor, it would not surprise me at all that a student would come and share a problem that he/she had not previously shared with his/her parents. In the situation you noted about a pregnant girl in the youth group, a wise youth pastor should handle the situation with respect and care. A youth pastor ought to help the girl to see the need to speak with her parents about the issue – and would provide her with the support she needs to do so. The wise parent should consider the youth pastor as a resource and partner to provide the entire family with needed support during a difficult time. (Original response can be found here.)
Does the Bible recognize or address the spiritual needs of young people? Consider Joseph, Gideon, David, Josiah, the disciples, and even Jesus in his early years. While every record of these biblical examples does not prescribe local church youth ministry, they do reveal patterns, to be mimicked, of how we should relate to and nurture the spiritual growth of young people.
In addition, we cannot ignore the biblical mandate to evangelize and disciple. Since the inception of the public schools in the early 20th century, we have been living among a new human called an adolescent. Adolescence has defined a culture of young people that includes systems of stylized beliefs, behavior, language, and customs unique to young people. But, I would assert that adolescence is not a destination. It is a time of transition and growth into adulthood. Don’t ignore the reality that of those who come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the majority continue to do so at a young age. Culturally, the church must be intentional in reaching young people cross-culturally during these responsive years. Youth ministry is missional!
But the most recent concern in the church has been the observable disconnect between young people and their parents. As mentioned in the HomeWord response above, I hold that there is a dual responsibility in the spiritual growth and education of our children (refer back to Deuteronomy 6). Pastoral leaders should become a trusted resource for parents in the areas of youth culture and adolescents struggles while not co-opting parental roles and authority. Youth ministry leaders have to consistently direct young people back to their parents for guidance, advice, and help in every situation possible. Church leaders must seek to equip parents in their divine role. In a similar fashion, parents should consistently encourage their children to learn from wise, spiritual adults in the church. This is the New Testament model of discipleship with the older more mature saint teaching the younger.
The last thing that I want to add is that Jesus set the tone for how the church is to connect with young people and children. Jesus quickly corrected his disciples and instructed them to clear the way and let children come to him. He also said that if an adult wants to come to him, they must become a child. (see Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:15)
Youth ministry is biblical because it carries out the ministry of the Gospel to reach the lost and teach them to obey all that Christ has commanded us.
Debunking the Dropout Myth – Timothy Paul Jones
Ready, Set, Go: Strategies for Equipping Parents (audio) – Steve Wright
How to Use Milestones in Your Church to Equip Families (audio) – Bryan Haynes
How to Be a Hero to Parents in Your Church (audio) – Jim Burns