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Youth Ministry is Sacred

I believe God calls some individuals, for a time or a career, to the ministry to teenagers.

I believe a healthy church has a health ministry to teenagers.

I believe healthy churches give teenagers a seat at the table and a place to belong.

I believe teenagers are powerful, their incredible faith creates movements and begin waves of influence throughout our culture.

I believe that ministry to adolescents is sacred, worth fighting for, worth championing, and worth supporting 100%.

Let’s Talk Modalities of Youth Ministry

But I don’t believe youth group is sacred. It is a time honored tradition, it is something I love, foundational to my own faith formation. I volunteer in the youth group at my church and my own daughter is invested in the youth group at our church.

I believe we need to deal with the evidence. With more than 50 years of data we know that youth group works for some teenagers but not all. (Roughly 5%-10% of any given teenage population.) And, as I shared at The Summit in 2014, this presents a call to action because our theology does not find it acceptable to minister to just 5%-10% of any given teenage population.

I believe we need to recognize that youth ministry is ministry to teenagers and not just youth group. Youth group is a modality, a way of living out youth ministry. But it’s not the only option.

Youth group is not sacred.

Youth group is a modality among others.

An Example from the Past

About 10 years ago, I wrote an article in which I argued a similar point. I wrote that for our youth ministry we’d moved on from retreats because they weren’t working anymore. Students didn’t want to go, our budget couldn’t support them, and we had found we could accomplish the same goals in other ways. So, I wrote, perhaps you needed to spend some time examining why you were doing retreats? Were you doing them because they were a tradition that worked or were you doing them despite knowing they didn’t work?

The article was simple enough. It said that retreats were not sacred to youth ministry, they were a modality. A means to an end.

The backlash began within days of publication. Several camp directors called my boss demanding I be fired. (I’m sure he wanted to fire me for other reasons!) A few camp boards wrote our deacon board asking that I be reprimanded. I received a flood of emails from fans of retreats telling me that I was stupid. And, my personal favorite, I received several handwritten letters with Bible verses cut out of the King James Bible and glued to paper telling me that I was bringing hell itself down on my shoulders.

I guess retreats are sacred to some? 

To them, I wasn’t merely asking others to consider how retreats fit in their philosophy of youth ministry: I was threatening their livelihoods.

In the middle of all of this a camp set up an appointment to talk to me. Their leadership team read the article and weren’t threatened, they were curious. Long-time clientele of their camp were saying similar things to them and they didn’t know how to process it. Rather than attack me they wanted to talk more, they wanted to understand what I was saying so they could adapt what they were doing. We talked for about an hour, going over how I’d reached this decision, what other things we were doing in place of retreats. This group of leaders asked a lot of questions. They weren’t threatened and they weren’t threatening me. They were learning.

Healthy is a Choice

I believe there are reasons why some organizations are healthy while others are not. Just like with our bodies… sometimes we put off decisions, sometimes we develop bad habits, sometimes we do things which are toxic, sometimes we are friends with who we shouldn’t be, and sometimes we stop listening to outside voices.

Some people hold onto things as if they were sacred. (Whether it’s the belief that youth group is the only modality of youth ministry for them or that weekend retreats are the only way to reach the lost.)

But others adapt and grow. They deal with change in a healthy way, they adapt programs and modalities to meet the needs of those whom they serve.

This leaves us with important questions: How do you learn those skills when they aren’t native to you? How do you lead an unhealthy organization to a healthy place? How do you decide what’s a good habit and what’s a bad one? How do you adapt to the changing situations while continuing to live out your values?


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