By Mel Walker, Crosswalk.com
Youth ministry may be getting a bad rap.
The drop-out statistics are well-documented and much-reported. Young adults are leaving the church (see Essential Church by Thom Rainer & Sam Rainer III), or are not making the church a priority (see The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White). And a variety of voices in evangelical Christianity are blaming church youth ministry for this departure.
But, ecclesiastically-speaking, what if the problem actually rests with “big church?”
Maybe today’s students love and profit greatly from youth ministry; and because the church as a whole is nothing like the youth ministry, the kids feel like they don’t belong, and therefore walk away looking for something else. Maybe youth ministry has it right.
Let’s not forget that most people accept Christ, and many make lifetime spiritual decisions when they are young (Contagious Faith: Empowering Student Leadership in Youth Evangelism by Dave Rahn & Terry Linhart, published by Group Publishing, p. 19).
Teenagers go on more short-term missions trips than adults; and more Christian teens share their faith than do Christian adults (Contagious Faith: Empowering Student Leadership in Youth Evangelism by Dave Rahn & Terry Linhart, published by Group Publishing, p. 19).
Perhaps churches should operate more like youth ministries. This may sound somewhat facetious, but if lead pastors would run their churches like youth pastors run their youth groups; there just might be more growing churches.
What if youth ministry is doing things right?
Please don’t dismiss this premise without thinking it through. The problem of emerging adults leaving the church following high school is serious enough that this issue should carefully examined from all viewpoints and not assume that only youth ministry is at fault.
A God-honoring, biblically-based, and culturally-relevant initiative like youth ministry must not be dismissed due to a prejudicial hypothesis or because of an over-reaction to negative statistics. A careful and historical look at the discipline of youth ministry will reveal some life-long, positive, and God-honoring results in the lives of countless people.
There are, of course, significant weaknesses in some local church youth programs. Some use entertainment to attract teenagers, other youth programs use activities to keep teens busy, others provide programming the teens themselves want to do. Others try to build their youth programs upon the strong personalities of extroverted adult youth “experts.”
Before unilaterally accepting the premise that youth ministry is failing however, churches should take a careful look at the kind of youth ministry that is “working” and that is producing Godly high school graduates who greatly desire to go on for Christ as adults.
Here are five reasons why youth ministry should be a top priority in the church:
1. Christian teens need in-depth and life-related teaching of the Scriptures.
The hallmark of local church youth ministry must be its focus on the creative and complete teaching of the Word of God. Today’s young people are growing up with tough questions about a variety of life’s issues, and they need to know where to go for the answers.
They can find entertainment and activities in other places. This does not mean that churches should never host functions that are fun or imaginative. But, church youth ministry must be characterized by the clear presentation of the Gospel.
Youth workers must also teach the Scriptures so that teenagers see that there are Biblical principles that apply to their lives today. The Apostle Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is an important passage that highlights the importance of teaching the Word of God in a way that impacts specific areas of life.
2. Christian teens need fellowship with other Christian teenagers.
Interaction with peers is very important for this age group. One veteran youth worker put it this way, “Friends are the very lifeblood of adolescence.”
Church youth ministry must be a place where Godly Christian young people can connect with other Christian teens. Most readers will remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. One of the most interesting aspects of that story is that these three Israeli captives are always mentioned together.
Undoubtedly it was easier for them to take this life-threatening stand for God because they did it together. The same principle applies to young people today. Godly young people need to know that there are other Christian teenagers out there who love the Lord and who are willing to take a stand for Him.
Church youth ministry is the place where that is most likely to happen.
3. Christian teens need Godly inter-generational connections.
Another key aspect of local church youth ministry is the opportunity teens have there to connect with believers from other generations. Young people especially need a variety of adult mentors. This is the principle that the Apostle Paul shared in Titus 2:1-8, where he instructed older more mature believers to mentor younger believers in practical areas of their lives.
It’s a shame if local churches isolate teenagers almost exclusively from other generations. A variety of Godly older adults can serve as spiritual mentors to young people in the church. Wise youth workers must be intentional about providing opportunities for teenagers to develop healthy and growing relationships with Godly older people in the church.
Likewise, youth workers should provide ways for teenagers to serve the Lord in the church’s ministry to children as well, and thus giving them ways to connect with other generations in the church.
4. Christian teens need outlets for service and outreach.
Church is also the place for teens to experience both ministry and evangelistic opportunities. Christian young people need encouraging and safe places where they can utilize their spiritual gifts in significant ways.
The description of the church in Ephesians 4:11-16 presents the idea that God’s church only functions currectly when everyone is doing their part. It’s a shame if younger generations are told that they need to grow up before they can serve. Churches should be intentional about providing ways for young people to serve the Lord as they grow towards spiritual maturity.
Christian teens also need opportunities to share their faith in Christ with others. Church youth ministry should provide an environment for them to learn how to present the Gospel and they also need occasions to do just that.
5. Christian teens need to develop lifelong spiritual disciplines.
The local church should work alongside Christian parents to build lasting habits of spiritual disciplines into the lives of young people.
Passages like Ephesians 6:4 and Ephesians 4:14-15 teach the importance of both God-ordained institutions (the family and the church) being integrally involved in the training of young people in their growth toward lasting spiritual maturity.
Spiritual disciplines like Scripture memory, a vibrant prayer life, giving, serving, and even regularly attending church must be implemented into the fabrics of both Christian homes and local church programming. This reinforcement of both the home and the church working together will help produce lasting habits in the lives of children and young people that are more likely to be practiced throughout their lives.
These five reasons build a case for the importance of local church youth ministry. The teaching of God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, inter-generational mentoring, service and evangelism, as well as the implementation of spiritual disciplines, must be essential ingredients of any church’s youth ministry.
These are the very things that can keep youth ministry from getting a bad rap and that can help thwart the young adult dropout phenomenon.
Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and is also is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. Mel is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his ministry can be found at: www.GoingOnForGod.com. One of his recent books is Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. He and his wife, Peggy, are the parents of 3 adult children, all of whom are in vocational ministry. Follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.
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