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Is Youth Ministry Biblical?

(a little cut-and-paste from some writing i did today for a little book for youth workers about parents)

There’s been a rash of push back on youth ministry recently. In many ways, it’s rooted in an understanding of a Bible passage.

The Shema is Israel’s most important scripture. God-fearing Jews, to this day, pray the Shema first thing when they wake up, and last thing before they go to sleep.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Christian theologian and author, Scot McKnight, has proposed we embrace the same practice, adding a line from Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and calling it the Jesus Creed.

But the parenting bit comes in the verses immediately following the Shema:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

Actually, Deuteronomy 6 refers to parents and their children a few times. This is one of the primary places in scripture that we see the responsibility of parents so clearly laid out, in terms of the spiritual formation of their kids. It’s a good, biblically sound argument.

But this movement goes way beyond passionately calling parents to step up in terms of leading their children and teenagers spiritually. The movement suggests that youth ministry is unbiblical, because it isn’t mandated in the Bible. At a recent event on these issues, a youth ministry friend of mine shared the stage with a guy whose official title was “Youth Ministry Abolitionist.” Wow.

Let’s list a few things that are common in our churches today that aren’t listed in the Bible:
• Baptismal pools and fonts
• Church buildings
• Hired clergy
• Church budgets
• The word ‘trinity’ (though i certainly believe the concept is there)
• Church busses and vans
• Sound systems
• Children’s ministry
• Men’s ministry
• Women’s ministry
• Senior adult ministry

That list could easily be 10 or 100 times as long, right? And those aren’t bad things. They are, with the exception of the word trinity, contextual approaches to doing church (which, for the record, is not quite the same as being the church).

In one sense, of course there’s no directive about youth ministry in the Bible. Adolescence, as we experience it today, is a cultural construct and didn’t even exist until about a hundred years ago. And yet, we can still see plenty of examples in scripture of other adults (not the child or young person’s parent) playing a significant role in the faith development of a ‘youth’. For example: Samuel and Eli (see 1 Samuel, chapter 1). But looking for a biblical directive is somewhat beside the point.

The church is called (see: New Testament!) to share the gospel and grow disciples, to be the presence on Christ on earth. In a world where youth culture exists, this simply must include adults who are cross-cultural missionaries, willing to embody the gospel into that cultural context. If we’re not willing to do this, we’re not being the church.

Hear me: this does not mean (as should be obvious by now in this book) that I think we should consistently remove teenagers from their parents and wall them up in isolated spaces with only their peers (and a few crazy adults willing to get pizza stains on their shirts). But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

We can both be engaged in ministry to and with teenagers and support parents in their role of spiritually leading their children.

Two comments:
1. All of this assumes parents who give a rip, of course. There’s plenty of important youth ministry to be done with teenagers whose parents are completely disengaged.
2. I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Not too many Youth Ministry Abolitionists will be reading this book. ☺

I was going to move on now; but I feel compelled to write a bit more from my personal experience.

First, I wouldn’t be where I am without the loving input of youth workers in my own life. My parents are amazing. They’re godly people, loving parents, and were very engaged in my life. We spent lots of time together, and they actively modeled their faith in my view on a daily basis. No, they weren’t perfect; but they were everything we would hope teenagers would have, and more.

And yet, I needed, and my parents were glad for, other adults to speak into my life.

Fast forward. I am a parent of two teenagers. Liesl is 17 as I write – a senior in high school. Max is 14 and in 8th grade. I love my kids, and they’re a very high priority in my life. We love being together, and hang out all the time. I regularly speak into their lives, draw boundaries, encourage competencies, talk about faith stuff, and multiple other things we all hope teenagers would get from their parents. I’m far from perfect. But I’m humbled when my church’s youth pastor tells me I’m a great dad (and even more so when my own kids tell me that).

Would my two teenage children be ok if my church’s youth ministry didn’t exist? Maybe. But time and time and time again, I am thankful for both paid and volunteer youth workers who love my kids, speak truth to them, provide them a safe place to be honest about questions and screw-ups, and encourage them toward Jesus. I could not be more thankful for the youth workers from my church and their role in my kids’ lives.

Yes, more than a youth worker, I am a parent who is thankful for youth ministry. I’m fairly certain your church is full of parents like me.