This fall, I will be moving into a leading role in our youth ministry. After 15 years of parish ministry and a decade as the rector of a program-sized congregation, I have come to two conclusions that demand that the person in my role be as completely engaged in youth ministry as in any other parish ministry.
My first new working assumption: teenagers, as young adults, should be treated more like adults than the young. That is, we should not have one standard of discipleship for our youth and a different one for our adults. We should be coaching our young adults toward the same marks of faithful Jesus-following that we expect from their parents and grandparents.
Why should we think that Christian praxis would look radically different for a teenager? Why would we train them to be anything other than faithful Christian adults? And as with anything else, the way you train to do something is simply to practice doing it.
Second, I have come to believe that we are entering a time in which radical, bold, and culture-defying faith will be required — not optional — for Christians. We are coming into a moment in which faithful, biblical Christianity will not primarily be fun. Our youth must be trained in the art of costly discipleship.
The “entertainment model” of youth ministry, in which the key determinant of success is how many kids there are at a meeting and how much “fun” they are having, is conditioning our young adults to see their walk with Jesus as one activity (among many) that can be dropped when they are too busy or it isn’t “fun” anymore. Faithfulness will be hard work in the future: we need to transition our youth from milk to red meat, if they are going to make it on the difficult pilgrim’s path.
Youth ministry, then, is parish ministry and not some other sort of other ministry. That seems an obvious thing to say, but the functional understanding of youth ministry in most churches (both the evangelical ones and the mainline churches that copy them) is that it is a parachurch ministry: something happening near the parish’s life and perhaps involving some of its members, but alongside and not really a part of church.
Think about it: “youth ministry” usually happens at times when most of the parish isn’t present (Sunday evenings or a weekday night, perhaps). If a young adult comes to “youth group” but not to church, an attitude prevails, even among the most faithful, along the lines of “well, at least they’re involved.”
Involved in what? Well, the normal model involves sneaking a ten-minute devotion into a two-hour period of eating, playing games, and hanging out. If an adult were to do the equivalent — say, only go to mid-afternoon speaker-with-wine-and-cheese events each week — and not go to church services, would we be willing to say that they are engaging in a faithful following of Jesus? I cannot.
We have to build again from the ground up. So, the foundation of my parish’s “youth ministry” will be the normative expectation that our young adults will attend church with their families on Sunday morning. Radical, I know.
Yet, in my experience it’s something that needs to be said. Regular attendance at corporate worship is what we expect of adult Christians and the only way to train up our youth in the right way is to have them do this very thing: go to church. If this is not the cornerstone of your Christian life at any age — especially during the young adult years — little else will be of value in forming you as a follower of Jesus.
I will be happy to recant this judgment when all the nifty missional folks have longitudinal data 20 years from now demonstrating that their digital, virtual, off-site efforts have resulted in retaining Christian identity and praxis in young adults. I have 2,000 years of church practice on my side of the argument, and I am radically skeptical of claims that this cultural moment differs so much from what has gone before it that it thus demands essentially different discipleship methodologies. Therefore, I tell my families that when they bring their young adult to church, they are doing the most important “youth ministry” there is. And if they find my parish “attractional,” insofar as it actually attracts them to engage in the sacramental life of the Church, then I will wear that epithet as a badge of honor.
We also expect faithful Christians to serve and study on Sunday mornings. I have been extraordinarily blessed in inheriting a vibrant, high-morale, high-expectation Acolyte Corps that engages youth (65% of the kids on my rolls) in active service of the parish’s worship, and it is youth ministry par excellence. It trains our young adults to participate with attention in the Divine Liturgy and gives them a place of honor from which to do it. The Acolyte Corps offers youth the opportunity to read Scripture in public (something adults do), assist in the administration of Holy Communion (something adults do), and commit to regular service under the direction of a lay leader (something adults do).
I do not see any reason why a young adult would not be involved in the Acolyte Corps and regularly go to Sunday school. Joining together after (or before) worship to deepen our understanding of faith in the midst of the community of believers is something adults do, too: Again, youth ministry is parish ministry! Regular attendance at Sunday School is a normative expectation of Christians of all ages.
Is faithful following of Jesus confined to Sunday morning? By no means! But additional discipleship should begin where all discipleship begins: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). This fall, I will inaugurate a Prayer Partner Ministry (an idea I got from the Rev. Mark DeVries of Youth Ministry Architects), in which every young adult in the parish will be paired with an elder in the faith as a prayer partner. We will begin and end each program year with a Prayer Partners Banquet, in which the pair may become (re)acquainted. Through the program year, they will pray for one another. Additionally, on Sunday mornings, the senior high Sunday school class will visit the fourth and fifth grade class in order to pray with partners in that younger group. Intercessory prayer — grounded in personal encounter — will be the heart of how we train our youth to be Christians.
Of course, I do not want to drive all “fun” from the program and communicate that a Christian life is one of drudgery. However, the fun is repurposed to train our youth to fulfill the Great Commission. We schedule Fun First Sundays, a fellowship event at various venues around town for our youth to enjoy one another, build community, and do something different off-campus. But we’ll also be emphasizing to our young adults that Fun First Sundays are a great opportunity to invite their friends to join them, thus introducing them to the normative Christian habit of relational evangelism. Lord Baden-Powell called Scouting “fun with a purpose.” Should we do any less in a ministry of the church?
Because discipleship at its root is about being taught, the other Sunday evenings of the month will be dedicated to ministry and study. Our music hour runs from 5 to 6 p.m. The young adults will be encouraged to participate in either the St. Cecilia Choir (for the traditional services) or the Youth Praise Team. Music is at the heart of Christian worship (once again, our first priority), and we set aside the time and the personnel (each group is led by the head of the respective music ministry) to make this happen because leading the congregation in God’s praises is something we expect adults to do. Why would we shortchange or counterprogram something so close to the Anglican genius?
We encourage adult Christians to participate in fellowship, especially around a common meal, in order to build a warm, loving community. After the music hour, all youth — whether in music ministry or just arriving on campus — will assemble for dinner. As our shared meal concludes, we will begin our Bible study. Given the spirit of the age, I intend to fulfill my responsibility as the pastor and teacher of this congregation to lead our young adults into the Word of God. Only a lively and direct engagement with the Scriptures will sustain them through the difficult choices and challenges ahead of them as followers of Jesus. And given their busy schedules, I think that only a project of this importance is worth their time.
But hey, I’m a kid at heart, too: we’ll play for the last 15 to 20 minutes. (You can see how the traditional order of “youth group meetings” is being stood on its head.) I don’t expect that I will get a huge proportion of my youth to come to this time at the parish: maybe a third. But I ask the parents, “How many of you participate in a weekly Bible study in addition to Sunday school?” We can’t continue to measure our youth ministries’ success by a criterion that their elders would fail. But just as I teach Bible studies for the elders during the week, I will work to disciple our oldest youth in their last years under my pastorate. How could I not want to pour teaching into them in the short time I have with them, like my Master did with his Twelve?
Finally, adults do outreach, too: our youth will be engaged in quarterly service events (not on Sunday nights), and of course, the quintessential summer mission trip. And we will have “mountaintop experiences” too, from diocesan retreats to summer camps to youth confirmation. Again, adults do all these things.
Youth ministry is parish ministry. I encourage parish leaders to carefully examine the ministries of their parish, and see if they have youth doing everything that adults are doing. If not, create what is lacking, and cut that which is extraneous. If so, then proudly name and doggedly sustain it as fully parish ministry in which youth happen to be involved. And examine your calendar, and prayerfully determine if you are delegating one of your chief duties as a priest: to “be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures” (1979 BCP, p. 532), and to lead others to be so also — especially your youth.