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Reaching a Generation for Christ: A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry

Reaching a Generation for Christ: A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry

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by Richard R. Dunn

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Things have changed. The Truth has not. The 1950's are gone forever. The days of the Sunday school attendance award and the much-loved Sunday school picnic have faded into oblivion. Yet some youth ministries still operate as if today's kids are living in a vacuum, unaffected by the changing morals of today's society. How can we reach these kids with the truth of


Things have changed. The Truth has not. The 1950's are gone forever. The days of the Sunday school attendance award and the much-loved Sunday school picnic have faded into oblivion. Yet some youth ministries still operate as if today's kids are living in a vacuum, unaffected by the changing morals of today's society. How can we reach these kids with the truth of the gospel? More than fifty of America's youth experts give advice and encouragement to those who long to see this generation know the love of Christ. They help readers think through their philosophies of youth ministry, break down barriers that impede progress, and maximize their own gifts and the gifts of those who work with them. They answer tough questions such as: How can leaders build a relational youth ministry? How can we find and support volunteers? What are the issues women face in youth ministry? How do we minister in ethnic communities? How should we respond to popular culture? How can we help hurting adolescents? You can have a vibrant youth ministry even in these uncertain times. You can reach this generation for Christ.

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Reaching a Generation for Christ

By Richard R. Dunn, Mark H. Senter III

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 1997 Richard R. Dunn And Mark H. Senter III
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57567-850-4


Putting Youth Ministry into Perspective

Richard R. Dunn

Steve surveys his new surroundings: an ancient metal desk, a recently installed phone, an older but functional computer, two worn metal folding chairs, and a file cabinet. "Pastor Steve's office," he whispers aloud, breaking into an approving smile.

Steve is the first youth pastor of Easton Community Church, a multicultural urban church plant that has grown from four families to a congregation of 225 in just five years. Steve muses that his childhood friends could never have imagined that he, the firstborn son of a dairy farming family in the Midwest, would be found living in an urban setting; Steve, in fact, is as surprised as anyone.

Recollections of his friends lead to fond memories of Brian and Joyce, the lay youth leaders in Steve's small rural church. The young married couple were used by God in significant ways to nurture his sincere though sometimes uncertain faith. Reproducing the loving, open relational context Brian and Joyce created through their leadership is a central component of Steve's vision for Easton. Yet Steve is acutely aware that he cannot simply duplicate in a multicultural urban context the same youth ministry programs and methods he experienced in his monocultural rural youth group.

In the candidating process Steve had felt quite confident of his readiness for youth ministry. Now, on the occasion of his first day as a youth pastor, several questions are beginning to threaten that self-assurance. These questions include: How can I ever meet the needs of students from such diverse social and cultural backgrounds? How can I build maturity in the lives of the twenty junior high and fifteen high school students who attend youth Sunday school? How can I build bridges to the other five thousand students who attend schools within five miles of the church? What changes should I be making right away?

"8:47 A.M." Steve's watch informs him that he has now been a youth pastor for seventeen minutes. "This may not be as easy as I thought," he concludes.

Thinking Youth Ministry: Steve's Challenge

Everyone in youth ministry, from college students volunteering in a campus ministry to the twenty-year veteran in a local church, has a particular youth ministry perspective. Based upon past church, ministry, educational, and personal spiritual experiences, every leader has a preconceived set of ideas about what is important in terms of values and practices in youth ministry.

Steve is realizing that he has his own youth ministry perspective. He has identified the significant influence of Brian and Joyce in shaping how he understands youth ministry. Other learning experiences that have made an impact on his ministry perspective include youth ministry training seminars and the camping ministry internship he participated in last summer.

None of Steve's past experiences, however, can act as a blueprint for the development of his new ministry at Easton. What he has previously learned cannot sufficiently provide answers for all of the new questions he is facing. Steve's challenge is both to broaden and to sharpen his current youth ministry perspective. He has been an effective "doer" of youth ministry; now he is discovering his need to become a more effective "thinker" of youth ministry.

Toward a Mature Ministry Mind-Set: Focusing Ministry Lenses

To suggest that anyone's ministry perspective has perfect 20/20 vision would be naive. Sin, human limitations, and the diversity of human experiences guarantee that no one sees with absolute clarity. Steve, however, does not need to despair as he faces his limitations. In fact, Steve should be encouraged because there exists an ever-present potential for bringing his ministry perspective's vision into clearer focus. Robert Clinton suggests that such refocusing is an essential component for anyone called to long-term ministry:

Effective leaders, at all levels of leadership, maintain a learning posture throughout life.... Leaders must develop a ministry philosophy that simultaneously honors biblical leadership values, embraces the challenges of the times in which we live, and fits their unique gifts and personal development if they expect to be productive over a lifetime. (Clinton 1988, 180)

Implicit in Clinton's statement is a challenge to Steve and all youth ministry leaders to take responsibility for focusing the internal interpretive lenses that shape youth ministry perspectives. Too often the urgency of an endless succession of ministry demands crowds out reflecting upon and disciplining one's ministry lenses. John Detonni observes that youth ministry leaders often become consumed by these urgent tasks:

Most often youth workers—and especially youth pastors—are very pragmatic and oriented to the program: fun and games, Bible studies, camps, retreats, social activities, and such things. It is a little difficult to talk about philosophy and theology with such youth workers in the morning when they know they are taking care of fifteen junior highers that same evening. Further, youth workers have a reputation not of being "thinkers" but doers, being more interested in how to do youth ministry than in the reasons and basis of it. (Detonni 1993, 17)

Because everyone is—consciously or unconsciously—operating out of a personal ministry perspective, it is unfortunate that so little attention is paid to such a critical component of youth ministry.

Acknowledging one's ministry perspective is one thing. Taking responsibility for evaluating and rethinking one's preconceived ideas is a separate, qualitatively different task. Clinton would suggest that this is necessary, Detonni that it is rare. What route can Steve take in his journey toward this crucial task?

A Model for Focusing Steve's Ministry Perspective

A starting place for Steve's exploration and development of his ministry perspective is presented in graphic form in Figure 1.1. The model assumes that this process is best moved along by examining three internal interpretive grids: the theological framework, the developmental framework, and the sociocultural framework. The model also demonstrates the significance of a historical framework for youth ministry. History provides insight into the dynamic nature of youth ministry perspectives. Further exploration of history's contribution is found in chapter 5, "A Historical Framework for Doing Youth Ministry," by Mark Senter.

The theological framework provides the primary base for developing one's ministry perspective. Steve's first goal is to discipline his theological thinking so that he has an increasingly accurate understanding of who God is and what it means to serve as a minister of the gospel. Human development assumptions narrow Steve's ministry vision into a more focused understanding of what it means to serve as a minister of the gospel to youth. Steve's goal here is to comprehend more of what it means to be an adolescent so that his ministry is increasingly appropriate to the developmental stages of the students. The final grid, the sociocultural framework, brings into an even more specific focus the ways in which Steve should be doing ministry in his new church. Sociocultural interpretations suggest what it means to serve as a minister of the gospel to youth in a particular context. Steve's goal is grasp the uniqueness of this particular context so that he may be increasingly adaptive to the needs and perceptions of his students.

Figure 1.1 provides a picture of how these lenses work together in a dynamic dialogue with one another. Thinking through these grids from presuppositions to practice will shape the way Steve does ministry in his new context. Thinking through these grids from practice to presuppositions will inform Steve's understanding within each grid. If Steve is to think Christianly, critically, and creatively in the unchartered, unfamiliar ministry territory he has entered he must give attention to the spiraling dialogue between each component of the model.

Theological Framework: A "God-View"

The theological framework lens could be described as Steve's understanding of "the way God sees." Based upon biblical knowledge and theological reasoning each person has a perception of who God is and how He views the created world, including people and relationships. The theological lens is the core of the leader's belief system. This lens is not limited to the leader's explicit doctrinal statements, however. Every leader, including Steve, has internalized theological beliefs that shape how he "reads and reacts" in a given context.

The significance of a fully developed, consciously reflective theological presuppositions lens can be described in these ways:

1. It provides the basic rationale for youth ministry.

Youth ministers lament the poor understanding others have of their role in the church or on the campus. Expectations to "baby-sit" or "entertain" the youth are as frustrating as the subtle messages which imply that youth ministry is not a "real job." The youth ministry leader's polemic is primarily a theological one. Youth ministry is a component of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and the body of Christ's "ministry of reconciliation" (see 2 Corinthians 5:20–21). The vision for youth ministry should be driven by obedience to God' s commands to the church, not by the need to "take care of the kids."

A mature, well-articulated rationale challenges others' myopic visions of youth ministry. Rather than asking evaluative questions such as "Are the high school students active in the church?" or "Do the junior high students' parents like the youth program of the church?" the theological lens calls into question the bigger picture of what is happening in the student's spiritual lives.

2. It guides the ministry Godward.

First Peter 4:10–11 reveals the heart of the focus of ministry leadership:

Each of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

It is too easy to begin to focus ministry on one's own agenda. Increasing numbers, gaining prestige in the community or denomination, and fueling one's self-esteem can usurp the agenda of the youth ministry program. The theological lens calls leaders back to "first things."

3. It guides the ministry into the faith community.

Growth in Christian maturity is not meant to be pursued in isolation from significant relationships with other members of Christ's body (Ephesians 4:11–16). A mature theological framework considers the implications of God's design of the local church as a place where children and youth participate in an intentional, intergenerational faith community.

Guiding the ministry into the faith community is critical. Students' spiritual growth is stunted if they are lacking in spiritual relationships with peers and adults. Peers may have the most immediate impact on the life of an adolescent. Parents and adult mentors, however, have the most important long-term effect on students' lives. By God's design, students need to belong to and participate in the life of the local church.

4. It critiques ministry practices.

Scripture does not provide a how-to guide for youth ministers. Although some would suggest that "the biblical way" to do youth ministry exists, the reality is that there are many ways to do youth ministry that are consistent with biblical values, commands, and principles. At the same time, not all that passes for youth ministry is necessarily biblical.

A mature theological view of ministry understands that there is a difference between an idea that has biblical foundations and practicing that idea in a biblical manner. For instance, one might hold to the belief that it is a biblical practice to develop and equip student leaders for ministry. However, if in the implementation of that strategy the youth leader exhibits favoritism and partiality to these students, then the "biblical" strategy becomes an "unbiblical" practice. Being biblical, therefore, requires a continual evaluation of the why, what, and how of youth ministry.

5. It determines the content and shapes the delivery of the teaching.

Theological presuppositions will ultimately drive the teaching component of a ministry. A commitment to teach Scripture in a way that honors its unique role as specific revelation will honor God's intent that the Word is to be taught for response and life-change. Teaching for knowledge of the Bible will be foundational, but that teaching is incomplete unless one also guides the learners toward a thoughtful and loving obedience to God. Delivery, a part of the "hidden curriculum" of teaching, must also be critiqued for the implicit messages being communicated about what it means to know and love God.

6. It provides ministry motivation and challenge for service.

Nothing could read more like a youth ministry leader's heart than Paul's self-description of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us."

Like Paul, youth ministry leaders are aware of the substantial personal investment required for meaningful life change. In youth ministry, terms such as relational youth ministry and incarnational ministry are often used to describe that personal impartation of one's life.

Imparting one's life, however, is no easy task. After his first six months in ministry, a graduate called one day to give me a report of his experiences. His words were telling: "You told us that ministry was hard, but I never really believed you. Now I know what you meant; in fact, it is harder than you said it would be."

Ministry is more work than fun, more sacrifice than recreation. How does one stay motivated to deal with the disappointments, failures, and criticisms that are inevitably a part of the ministry experience? Paul found his motivation for enduring in the sacrificial life of Christ:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5–8)

Leaders need a theology that has begun to develop a mature concept of the serving nature of ministry. Part of the reason youth ministry leaders have such short tenures in churches and on campuses is that they have failed to develop the theological maturity needed to weather the inevitable hurts that occur in ministry leadership.


Excerpted from Reaching a Generation for Christ by Richard R. Dunn, Mark H. Senter III. Copyright © 1997 Richard R. Dunn And Mark H. Senter III. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DR. RICHARD R. DUNN (M.A., Ed.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the lead pastor at Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his responsibilities include directing a large student ministries program. He was formerly chair of educational ministries at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a fifteen-year veteran of church, campus, and camping youth ministries. Dr. Dunn is the author of Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students and Can¿t Fight the Feeling and the co-editor of Reaching a Generation for Christ. Dr. Dunn and his wife, Teresa, have two children and live in Knoxville, Tennessee.

MARK H. SENTER III contributed to or edited three generations of Moody Press youth ministry text books, the most recent of which is the Gold Medallion Book Award winning, Reaching a Generation for Christ, co-edited with Richard R. Dunn. He has authored five other books. Recognized as the leading historian of Protestant youth ministry in America, Senter was honored by the Association of Youth Ministry Educators with the Distinguished Youth Ministry Educator Award in 2011. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute who earned his PhD at Loyola University, Chicago, Senter is Professor Emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

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