I remember one particularly galling Wednesday night several years ago. The previous days had brought a familiar mix of high-effort, low-response, excitement and frustration and discouragement – all rolled into one package. And when I walked away from a house that night I had just one simple question: why?
Let’s face it: there are times in youth ministry when you walk away from a small group study or a conversation with a family or a late-night program and the thought occurs to you … why I am doing this? Is there any good or compelling reason that I continue to pour heart and hands, effort and energy into this work of youth ministry … or am I just keeping the car running?
Early last fall I was at a conference where I got to hear Simon Sinek give a short talk on “The Power of Why”. His thesis: why drives the how, how issues in what. But this is the reverse of our normal practice where we focus on what, argue over how, and rarely figure out any justification for the whole enterprise.
So is there a clear “why” for youth ministry? Why this work with students, this endeavor within (or without) our churches to seek out and minister to teenagers? What do we find in Scripture that convinces us that this work matters and God calls us to it?
The more I reflect on these 15 years in youth ministry, the more convinced I am that youth ministry is really just one of the manifold ministries of Christ and his church. It is highly-contextualized ministry to adolescents that can take a myriad of local forms that all look to Scripture for both guidance and goal. I make no claim to have THE biblical theology for youth ministry, but I can attempt a few words of call, challenge, and comfort that have lead me to a theology for it – and for our day in the church. This is my why. This is what I believe.
Here are three – there are three more to come.
1. Youth ministry is mission work. The reality is that we have been called by a missionary God: a Father who sent his Son (for us!) and his Spirit (in us!) that we might be adopted into his family, united to him as sons and daughters, renewed in his image and participating in his kingdom. I’m growing to love 1 Peter 2 more and more: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood” … to what end? “so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We in youth ministry get to stand at the foggy adolescent intersection of childhood and adulthood, family and friend, church and wider society. We stand and say it, sing it out: the praise of God to those who are adrift in the fog and lost in the dark.
2. Youth ministry is corporate work. It is the church’s work. The church is the body of Christ, and where He is working, there the church is to be found. This family of God, this fellowship of Jesus, is sent (via Son’s own authority! Mt 28:18ff, John 20:21) on the mission of making disciples to Jesus. Though we love the church and are passionately committed to it, we point to Christ, not it (or ourselves) – we want to see students called to a robust, sticky faith in Jesus Christ that is poured out in love for God and for people.
3. Youth ministry is family work. God desires for these broken human families to play their part in telling his story of redemption. God has designed the family such that parents have the primary spiritual responsibility of telling (and showing!) the story of God’s grace in creation, redemption, and restoration and then leading kids to know God: to love him heart, soul, mind, and strength with an everyday faith (Dt. 6).
[Update: read part two of this post for the remaining three convictions on why youth ministry.]