After 18 months of working at Youth Specialties and interacting with youth workers around the United States (and everywhere else) it’s finally sunken in: There are two different things called “youth ministry” with a major gap in the middle.
Professional vocational youth ministry: When I talk about youth ministry this is often my default. These are youth ministries and youth ministry leaders who have formal education, continued training, experience, and live their whole lives thinking about youth ministry. When you talk to them about youth ministry they think of models, books, authors, speakers, ministry ideas, successful programs, historical viewpoints, on and on.
This youth ministry is pretty sophisticated. Like any profession people fall into schools of thought. They have models for doing youth ministry. They have personally written and can defend philosophies of youth ministry. They run programs which implement their well thought out and defended philosophy of ministry. They train volunteers to be proteges for their school of thought. They have opinions about whether a certain models is getting stronger or dying.
For the 20% or so of youth workers in America in this category those nuances matter to them. They are on the leading edge of thinking about Youth Ministry 3.0.
My Church Youth Ministry: They just want to know how to minister to the kids in their church. When they e-mail me or call our customer service line they don’t want to talk philosophy or are even aware that there are different ways of doing youth ministry. They are calling because they have 15 seventh graders in their Sunday School class and they need a curriculum that will work for them. When you ask them about what they are trying to do with the group… you’ll hear the dead air or the exhale and then they’ll say, “We’re Methodist, what works for Methodists seventh graders?”
They don’t know or care about philosophies of ministry. They don’t know or care about ministry models. They haven’t heard of Saddleback or Willow Creek. They go to First United Methodist Church of Middletown– that’s it. They may know that some churches have full-time youth workers but they don’t really care. They have a full-time job outside the church. They have a kid in high school. And the pastor thought they were pretty loving towards teens and asked them to minister to their kids friends. They give of themselves to invest in the kids in their church and that’s amazingly awesome.
For the 80% or so of youth workers in America who fit this category, youth ministry is pretty matter-of-fact. There are kids who show up on Sunday morning or Wednesday night and they do what they can to minister to them.
Minding the gap: There are not big steps in between the two groups of youth workers. It’s a gap with a chasm, not a ladder to the next or even a bridge.
It is literally two different things we call youth ministry in America. They all care about the kids in their church. One group is purely interested in the kids in their church. While the other also cares a lot about the greater profession of youth ministry.