03 April 2012

What Do We Do Now?

I ran across a very interesting article on the GC Blog today.  It is by Dave Wright, and the original can be found here.

After giving a brief summary of the roots of youth ministry, Dave says the following-

By the early 70s, churches began to realize the need for specialized ministries to teenagers and began hiring youth pastors. Some of these were former staff members from YL and YFC. With this the church imported the relational strategy of the parachurch movement. During the 70s, youth pastors seeking to reach large numbers of youth for the gospel began to employ a more attractional model. Gatherings with food and live music could draw enormous crowds. Churches found that large, vibrant youth groups drew more families to the church, and, therefore, encouraged more attraction-oriented programs. Later in the decade, this writer watched leaders swallowing live goldfish in both the church youth group and local Young Life club when we brought enough friends to reach an attendance target.

By the 80s the emergence of MTV and a media-driven generation meant church youth ministry became more entertainment-driven than ever. Youth pastors felt the need to feature live bands, video production, and elaborate sound and lighting in order to reach this audience. No longer could a pile of burgers or pizzas draw a crowd. By the end of the decade the youth group meeting was being creatively inspired by MTV and game shows on Nickelodeon. The message had been simplified and shortened to fit the entertainment-saturated youth culture. By the start of the 21st century, we discovered many youth were no longer interested in the show that we put on or the oversimplified message. Christianity was no different from the world around them. Some youth ministries intensified their effort combining massive hype with strong messages that inspired youth but did not translate to everyday life. We realized we were faced with a generation whose faith was unsustainable.

The Result

What happened in all that? First, we moved from parachurch to church-based ministry (though the parachurch continues). In doing so, we segregated youth from the rest of the congregation. Students in many churches no longer engaged with "adult" church and had no place to go once they graduated from high school. They did not benefit from intergenerational relationships but instead were relegated to the youth room.

Second, we incorporated an attractional model that morphed into entertainment-driven ministry. In doing that we bought into the fallacy of "edu-tainment" as a legitimate means of communicating the gospel. Obscuring the gospel has communicated that we have to dress up Jesus to make him cool.

Third, we lost sight of the Great Commission, deciding instead to make converts of many and disciples of few. We concluded that strong biblical teaching and helping students embrace a robust theology was boring (or only relevant to the exceptionally keen) and proverbially shot ourselves in the foot.

Fourth, we created a consumer mentality amongst a generation that did not expect to be challenged at church in ways similar to what they face at school or on sports teams. The frightening truth is that youth ministry books and training events were teaching us to do the exact methods that have failed us. The major shapers of youth ministry nationally were teaching us the latest games and selling us big events with the assumption that we would work some content in there somewhere. In the midst of all this, church leaders and parents came to expect that successful youth ministry is primarily about having fun and attracting large crowds. Those youth pastors in recent decades who were determined to put the Bible at the center of their work faced an uphill battle not only against the prevailing youth culture but against the leadership of the church as well.

The task before us is enormous. We need to change the way we pass the faith to the next generation. Believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, we must turn to the Bible to teach us how to do ministry (rather than just what to teach). Students need gospel-centered ministries grounded in the Word of God.

This description parallels pretty closely with what I saw happening in my dealings with youth ministry from the mid-80s on.  It didn't seem to matter very much what the denomination was, nor the level of commitment to 'biblical inerrancy' or the conservative/liberal bent of the churches.  Everybody was doing the same thing.

Back then, I didn't have Utes of my own, so the process didn't really register on me with any more depth than, 'gee, I wish we'd had this much fun when I was a youth.'  Now, I have three teenagers and another soon-to-be.  This is very important now.  How context matters.

Our own youth ministry has pretty well done away with the attractional model of youth ministry.  As a result, the numbers are low.  Many of the kids who used to come go to a church down the street where they are still doing rock concerts and throwing food.  But those kids aren't being fed.  Our kids are, and I'm thankful for that.  The big question for the youth leadership is, how can we 'compete' with the attractional models?  I understand this isn't really a competition, and so do the pastors at church.  But still, it's hard to reach some of the kids who seem to need it the most when they aren't around at any of the events.

I suppose this is a good picture of why non-attractional models must of necessity be missional models.  If they won't come to you, you are going to have to go to them.  Sure looks that way.


  1. Doc, I love your reflections on other articles. I like how this one addresses the history of the movement. I'm passionate about this issue. It seems like all the pressure is on the youth leader to bring in teens, and our children have been trained to sit back and be entertained. What ever happened to being confident that God would provide the increase as we are faithful to his Word? Brian Crosby's book "Giving Up Gimmicks" is a good start in the right direction.

  2. Thanks, Aimee. I haven't read Crosby's book...partly because I'm afraid it might make me angry at myself for putting up with what I've put up with. I'll get to it eventually, I think.

    The other angle I didn't attack with this post is the parents...how much of the blame do we take for insisting on others giving our kids their 'religious education'? Maybe I'll write on that later.

  3. Definitely a factor. Cosby (I was spelling his name wrong) talks about bringing the parents in on the deal in his book--also connecting them to the elders and the rest of the church body.


I welcome comments, and will read them, but they are moderated.