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In a dialog that often gets downright feisty, four youth ministry academicians delineate their distinct philosophical and ecclesiological views regarding how youth ministry relates to the church at large--and leave a taste of what's profound and what's not in these four typologies:
Inclusive congregational (Malan Nel). What happens when a church thoroughly integrates its adolescents, making them full partners in every aspect of congregational life?
Preparatory (Wesley Black). Why and how should a church consider its teenagers as disciples-in-training and its youth ministry a school of preparation for future participation in church life?
Missional (Chap Clark). What does a church look like, whose youth ministry does not necessarily nurture 'church kids' but is essentially evangelistic? Whose youths and youth workers are considered missionaries?
Strategic (Mark Senter). How feasible is it for a youth ministry to become a new church on its own--the youth pastor becoming the pastor, and the new church planted with the blessing of the mother church?
In Four View of Your Ministry and the Church, solid academic writing and an inviting tone and design create a compelling text for both in-the-field, practicing youth workers and undergraduates and graduate students.
Responses Black: from a Preparatory perspective Clark: from a Missional perspective Senter: from a Strategic perspective
Scenario: Giving teens both roots and wings
"The problem is not our youth ministry," Pastor Guda heard himself saying. "The problem is our church."
Silence thick as smoke from a Dutchman's cigar filled the boardroom. For over two hours the session had struggled with issues related to the youth ministry, and this was not the first time. On at least four other occasions during his seven-year pastorate, church leaders had wrestled with nagging questions related to the Christian commitment and involvement of the youths of the church. The answer was always the same: If we get the right people to work with the young people, they would solve the problems.
"This is not the first time we have discussed the problems we are having with our young people," continued the pastor. "Remember when we realized that young people quit attending church services as soon as they were confirmed? What was our solution? New youth workers and better curriculum for catechesis. Did it change anything? Not really.
"Then there was the problem related to methamphetamines at the youth group retreat at Camp Hebron. It nearly split the church. What did we decide to do? Hire a youth minister nd implement a drug awareness program. Did it work? Well, we haven't had any more drug-related crises, but I'm not sure we got to the root of what our youths need to grow in their Christian faith."
Pastor Guda was on a roll. Instead of interrupting with their standard objections, the session members appeared willing to allow their pastor to reframe their youth ministry problem.
"Then there were the complaints that came after the Family-Based Youth Ministry book circulated among the parents. So what did we do? Remember the mentors we assigned to the young people? It seemed to work for a year or so before it ran out of gas.
"And the discipleship approach that resulted in six or eight young people committing themselves to minister to unreached people groups. Remember the crises our session experienced when we realized the financial implications of the discipleship emphasis on our missionary budget and how relieved we were when several of them changed majors and career directions a couple years later?"
"Now, Pastor," interrupted a senior member of the session, "that is a bit harsh. We all know the Lord would have provided."
"You're probably right, Ernie," replied Pastor Guda. "Maybe it was my faith that was too small. But what would have happened if a half dozen young people did go into mission work every year? Would we be prepared to support them? More importantly, would the parents of the church be thrilled with a youth ministry that produced that kind of disciple? I'm not sure they would.
"So what do we want to have happen in our youth ministry? Honestly, as a church we have treated the young people like foster care, not family. They've become problems to deal with, rather than flesh and blood to love. We keep thinking they have to change to fit into our church family. Instead we should be adapting the family to include them, just like we all did as children were born into our own families."
"No offense, Pastor," objected Henri, "but our young people don't respond like babies. They have a will of their own. They want independence."
"Independence, yes; but isolation, no. Our youth ministry, I fear, has isolated our young people in their own little ghetto. The best families allow young people to have both roots and wings. I think that what we haven't done well so far relates to the students' roots. Pardon my analogy if you think I'm pushing it too far, but we have set up a little garden plot in the back of our property and asked a tenant farmer to make sure the plants have good roots. It can't be done that way if we want them to grow and become a part of our olive tree."
"You're sounding rather biblical, Pastor, with the olive tree and all," responded Henri. "But where are we going with all this? You caught our attention when you said the problem is not the youth ministry but the church. How is the church supposed to change in order for young people-to use your analogy-to grow deep roots in the church?"
Henri's question placed the issue into clear focus. If young people are to be completely included in the life of the congregation, the church must be prepared to change. But how?
A comprehensive, inclusive approach
Although Pastor Guda and his church are fictitious, their dilemma is faced by actual churches large and small. Responding to the youth ministry needs of his church provides more than enough reasons to see youth ministry as a comprehensive, inclusive congregational ministry, with catechesis (that is, Christian education of youths) as a vital component.
Historically speaking, the church and organized youth work were typically autonomous, and often still are-probably because youth ministry did not really exist before the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century. In the rural context of the world, up to and during the Industrial Revolution, children and young people were perceived as part of the family. Yet studies of catechesis (or Christian education) have been done since the time of the New Testament and probably were the sum total of church involvement with youth for many centuries. Catechesis has been viewed as part of the church's task without any reference to the rest of what we now know as youth ministry.
This historical explanation for the dichotomy between catechesis and youth ministry, however, does not mean that one should accept matters as they stand.
For some time now, attempts have been made to give youth ministry a theological grounding. For over a century, theology and society have been calling for a radical change from the pattern of the autonomous church/autonomous youth ministry. The Industrial Revolution that put youth ministry on the agenda was no flash in the pan. It drew the attention of individuals and eventually the church to youths inside-but especially outside-their parental homes. This revolution continues daily.
Some societies-such as my own in South Africa-are now experiencing something of the Industrial Revolution felt by other countries in the 19th century, and something of the youth revolution felt by other countries in the 20th century. In all of society, and for varying reasons, youths are the center of attention. Sometimes it's because of their numbers, their rebellion, their poverty, or their criminal involvement. Other times it is a result of their academic or democratic frustrations. In any case, churches are being challenged to notice the youths, to know them, to sense their needs, and to serve them.
Before I supply the necessary theological justification for this ministry, I will first explain how an inclusive congregational approach needs to be understood.
No more traditional distinction
To my mind there is no argument that holds water for the preservation of the traditional dichotomy between youth ministry as a duty of the local church and youth ministry as an organized form of working with youths separate from catechesis, or Christian education. Young people are not just partly the congregation's responsibility, they are wholly so. The essence of God's dealings and relationship with people-and especially with those in the community of believers-makes such a distinction indefensible.
Put simply, youth ministry is part of a comprehensive ministry of the congregation. It includes more than the organized efforts of this or that institution that, possibly in association with the congregation, organizes the youths. Youth ministry (Jugendarbeit) and youths themselves are part of the total congregational ministry and not a separate entity. It is an integral part of the congregational whole, in that the whole is never complete without youth ministry.
Results of including youths as full participants
Even before a case for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to youth ministry is argued, a summary of the consequences of the theological justification given below is necessary here. The church must realize the implications of including youths as full participants in the church.
The congregation will never think of the faith life of youths separately from the faith life of adult members. People do not need to reach a certain age before God becomes interested in them and starts working with and through them. Youths are part of the congregation's service to God because they share in God's relationship with his people and are incorporated into the congregation.
Youths will not become a separate group within the congregation. Even though they are unique and have distinct characteristics, they are not apart from the rest. The relationship of God with the believers and their children, as well as the nature of the congregation as something created by God, makes this impossible. So although the youths, because of their distinct nature, require and need to receive specific attention, they should still be approached and ministered to as essential members of the congregation.
Youths will not be neglected or ignored. The congregation does not consist only of adults or only of youths. The youths have to be incorporated in every line of thought and received into every part of the ministry. They have to be taken into account, regardless of the type of ministry on the agenda.
Youths will be the congregation's responsibility, not merely the responsibility of the "youth workers." Children and adolescents are not simply the charge of a few people who particularly love and understand them and want to help them-however well-meaning these people might be. Youths are the responsibility of parents, Sunday school teachers, elders, deacons, the membership as such, as well as one another (in other words the youths themselves). This responsibility is inalienable and not transferable.
These sentiments have been stated over many years by a number of theologians-among them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his eight theses on youth work, he rejected the existence of anything resembling a church youth league because its very existence discredits the cause of the church as such. Beyer also thinks the idea of young people and the congregation should change to young people within the congregation. Sara Little is of the same opinion, writing that they are a part of the ministering body of Christ now.
In spite of such stellar advocates, the typical congregation does not readily accept this comprehensive approach-possibly because theological faculties still teach youth ministry as a kind of supplement to catechesis (and in Anglo circles, to Christian education). As long as the whole is reduced to a part, even the part-in this case, education/catechesis-will not come into its own.
How Should a Comprehensive Approach Be Understood?
God approaches people
A fundamental question of theology is How does God approach us? Theology's answer is God approaches people and his creation in many ways-by means of his Spirit and of his Word, but also by means of other people. (Ultimately, of course, God can come to us in any way he pleases.) In fact, the Bible is quite clear that God approaches people by means of people-which is the essence of ministry. Our attempts to understand ministry are attempts to explain God's coming, yet human insight and expression are severely limited trying to articulate these things.
One such attempt is to investigate biblical accounts of how God approached people. Practical theology generally asserts that the gospel is primarily about the kingdom of God that has come and is yet to come. God comes to people by means of the gospel; furthermore, God includes the people to whom he has come and is yet to come in the very act of bringing the kingdom to us. In short, practical theology attempts to put words and descriptions to just how this coming takes place.
In a sense, in fact, the Lord Christ himself is the first Witness of his own person and work. Then the church became the witness about Jesus Christ (and his life, work, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascent), first through the apostles and the first congregation, and primarily by means of the New Testament. Their witness about the Witness is the witness of the early church. And the church remains as the witness of Jesus. In fact, the church's primary ministry is the witness-in Greek, the marturia-of Jesus Christ. Whatever names are given to the ways in which God comes to people, these ways of coming are a participation in the marturia of Jesus Christ.
God's ways of coming by means of his Word and by means of people's service have traditionally been listed under seven headings; I have added an eighth. In all eight ministries it's about serving God, serving one another, and serving the world-in all cases, as a community of the faithful. In this way every designated mode of God's coming is founded on God's communicative involvement in the church and the world.
Notice that there is a unique dimension to God's coming in each kind of ministry-a dimension that asks to be distinguished. It is this unique dimension of each kind of ministry that must be discovered again and again in the context of Scripture wherever this ministry is referred to. And just as significantly, God comes in these ministries to youths as he does to the church at large (and in ways as yet undiscovered and unnamed in theology).
Definition of the Inclusive Congregational Approach
The Inclusive Congregational approach asserts that youth ministry is not a separate or additional mode of God's coming to the youths-which is why there is not a ninth ministry listed in the above diagram. Youth ministry is not about finding an extra place for yet another ministry, but about finding a place for youths within every ministry and among the people that the ministries are designed to reach and serve-the people to whom God comes by means of the ministries.
The Inclusive Congregational approach, therefore, is more about finding a place for children and adolescents than about dreaming up new modes of ministry.
Excerpted from Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church by Wesley Black Chap Clark Malan Nel Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 14, 2010
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