There’s a growing movement within the American church that puts youth ministry under the umbrella of family ministry. There are youth ministry organizations, publishers, conferences, and lots and lots of people highly interested in this model.
To over-simplify: The idea is that youth ministry should be an extension of the over all family ministry of the church. So, youth ministry is really just another part of the organizational chart which fits nicely between kids ministry and young adult ministry.
I think we need to push back from this organizational simplification. There’s a very good reason why youth ministry is the way it is. Namely, modern youth ministry emerged in the 1940’s to reach lost students the church didn’t care about. (The church, as a whole, was late to minister to adolescents. This gave birth to parachurch movements like YoungLife and Youth for Christ.)
Youth ministry sprang up to meet the need of teenagers who wouldn’t naturally go to church. Or who didn’t fit in because their parents don’t go to church. Or those who will never fit into the stiff collars of a traditional church. Youth ministry has always been the organizational oddity that helps those students experience Christ.
Any attempt to fold youth ministry into a church that isn’t currently reaching those kinds of kids and adults… is destined to make youth ministry sterile.
Putting youth ministry into the box of family ministry is misunderstanding that it’s historical place in the church is missiological. Historically, we are more tied to evangelism than we are discipleship.
Don’t Misunderstand the 1-eared Mickey Mouse
Chap Clark, very poignantly and famously pointed out that youth ministry too easily becomes an organizational island, what he called “the 1-eared Mickey Mouse” in the church. In other words, many youth groups have their own mini-culture, their own goals, values, and norms.
I love Chap’s observation. It’s true. But I would argue that it’s not altogether bad. Further, I would argue that maybe the church needs a few more 1-eared Mickey’s to start reaching some more types of people. (But that’s another rant for another day.) The problem is that when you let the business people run your church– having a 1-eared Mickey Mouse is a bad thing. And so some of these emerging models of family ministry have at their core a desire to kill the 1-eared Mickey, folding youth ministry in.
But don’t forget– if that 1-eared Mickey Mouse is reaching people the rest of the church organization fails to minister to, that’s a very good thing. And some of what you get when you fold it in is backfiring.
Sanitizing Youth Ministry is a Bad Idea
As I read the books, listen to the speakers, and read between a few lines… I think that the motivation for some people is to make youth ministry tidy. Some of these folks who say that youth ministry is really just a step in the family ministry food chain attend/work/consult with churches who reach a very sterile, homogeneous group of people. It looks like they are reaching a lot of people but they are really good at reaching a certain kind of person while excluding large, growing portions of the population.
Bottom line: If you make youth ministry revolve around the family you automatically exclude students who don’t have families who go to church. Sure, you don’t exclude them by name or even intentionally. But when you start having father/son trips and retreats for the whole family– if you lived in a home with your grandma who didn’t come to church, how welcome would you feel?
If you make youth ministry fit around the vibe and rhythm of your church instead of the local school system you’re automatically limiting who you reach.
On and on. Youth ministry can be very powerful as an organizational island.
Moreover, youth ministry was created to take some risks. To do things that got the Jones Memorial Carpet ruined. To reach the lost kids instead of the right ones. To connect the unconnected to the most important family they could ever have.
The answer isn’t a sanitized family ministry. The answer is a realistic integration strategy that gets people of all ages and backgrounds out of programs and into community.
This rant has exceptions: Let me point out, and cut off some of the negative feedback I get when I post things like this, that while I’m making generalities there are exceptions. The church we attend is one of them. They head this off because top to bottom they are reaching “the wrong people.”