What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: 4 Views of Youth Ministry and the Church

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This week I have been writing about my attempts to relate multi-generationally.  I concluded yesterday by talking about the young adult Gen Xers and Millenials.

In a way this post is continuing that series as I also read a rather dated book about youth ministry called “Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church.”

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I read the book because I have a rather large youth group whose attendance sometimes exceeds our Sunday morning crowd.  .  .and I have no idea what to do with it.  It turns out I am not alone.

What we might consider the traditional youth ministry model began in the 50s and 60s.  Throughout the 70s to the 90s it was fueled by parachurch ministries like FCA and Young Life.  But over the last 15 years youth groups have really started to struggle.

The problem is traditional youth ministries never really succeeded at making lifelong disciples.  To be sure, they made a few but as percentages ago the church has now lost three generations of young adults.

The problem is not that they don’t go to church any more.  It is that they don’t know anything about God, make poor moral and ethical decisions, are lousy spouses and parents and don’t pray on a regular basis.

Around 1990 the first and second generation of “youth pastors” began noting these unfortunate facts.  They began collecting raw data, researching, interviewing and writing books about it.  But nobody listened for a few years because after all, youth pastors were not hired to think, just to play games and spend time with teenagers the rest of us would rather ignore.

The book “4 Views of Youth Ministry and the Church” was published in 2000, right around the time the church began to listen.  The editor, Mark H. Senter, asked his friends who had vast youth ministry experience and knowledge to document their opinions about what went wrong and what models and paradigms might help solve the youth crisis.

In sum the four different ideas presented are:

The Inclusive Congregational Approach which is now popularly called “Intergenerational Discipleship.”  In it we get rid of our youth pastors and instead hire, “Family Pastors” who work to train parents in discipling their children and assimilate teenagers into the structures of the church.

The Preparatory Approach keeps the youth pastors and their youth groups.  It is most associated with the traditional model.  In it our teens have separate groups and classes that prepare them to be leaders in the church one day.

The Missional Approach recommends we keep the youth pastors around but instead send them out into the High Schools and Skate Parks and Coffee Shops in order to bridge the gap between the traditional church and the current youth culture.

The Strategic Approach is perhaps the most innovative.  In it we lose the youth pastors and instead hire church planters who will plant churches among teenagers.  In this model we do not graduate teens out of our youth groups but instead we graduate the whole youth group into its own church every five or so years.

14 years after the book was published, it might appear as if the “Intergenerational” Approach is winning the votes.  Asbury College has done a lot of research on teens and their parents and concluded that parents still make the best pastors.  They have published many books that advocate for it.  I know several upper class, suburban churches that are reading those books and working to integrate teens into all committees, ministries and services of their churches and teach parents to be better disciples.  It is a good move and one that might yield a more committed group of young adults in 5-10 years.

However, I am not so sure it will.  The “intergenerational” model relies heavily on the assumption that teenagers have active and committed parents.  The teens that show up at my church every Wednesday night don’t have any.  They live with variations of uncle and aunts and grandparents and great-grandparents and step mom and half dads.  The traditional family is a TV show to them and they lives out of school lives with little to no adult accountability.  I have a nagging feeling they are not alone.

To be sure they long for adult attention.  It is their primary need and when it is met they light up like kids on Christmas morning.  So I try hard to get the older adults in my congregation to connect with them but the structures and rhythms of my current adult congregation cannot and will not change to accommodate them.

Therefore, I think the strategic approach is probably the best bet for our time.  The youth need a loving community that will last beyond their high school graduations.  We cannot claim God loves them and then throw them out when they turn 18.  They need rhythms and practices that are relevant to the world they live in and grew up in and that will sustain them through young adulthood and middle age into their elder years.  Most traditional churches just do not have those practices.

With that said, I don’t think the answer is either this or that.  In fact, I have been a part of churches and youth groups that successfully incorporated all 4 of these models together.

In conclusion the book was a good read and informed my own efforts to reach out across the generations and provide more unity, stability, understanding, peace and above all love to a church and a world that are badly in need of them.

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