Longitudinal Youth Ministry

Photo by Ben Lawson via Flickr (creative commons)
Photo by Ben Lawson via Flickr (creative commons)

There is something so cheap about a program that graduates students.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t like to let go? Or maybe it’s just that I can’t reconcile the theological ramifications of shoving a copy of My Utmost for His Highest in a kids hands and saying, “Thanks for the memories. Have a nice life!

In reality, I’ve not let go of them. I just can’t. It wouldn’t seem right. And I am pretty sure they don’t want to either. Why else would I be maintaining these relationships with them into adulthood? Why are we still sharing life?

The way my youth ministry career has gone, in many ways that relationship is just getting started when they walk across the stage to accept their high school diploma. It’s not over, we’re just changing gears!

And yet, the programmatic approach to youth ministry depends on me pushing kids through the system. Freshmen take steps 1-2, sophomores steps 3-4, juniors do step 5, seniors do step 6. We’re always working kids through a system. We say we love them… but that’s a short-term love that lasts as long as they are in high school. Sayonara, sucker! I’ve got a whole slew of incoming freshmen to look after!

The way I see it, that type of program is a cheap Wal*Mart edition of discipleship. Real discipleship is taxing. It’s tough. It’s costly. It’s complicated. It requires more commitment than getting assigned to 8 kids for a small group year or running a program at work.

When I think of the way Jesus discipled I think of a process that was open-ended. They ground it out over time. It wasn’t a wheel or bases that he ran those young men through. It was life shared. Three steps forward, two steps back. But together they got there.

From my own ministry experience, you just know when you have a few kids who get it and want to be discipled long-term. You don’t get assigned these kids. A pastor doesn’t have to bestow anything on you. It’s just natural, you pick it up, and you see where the relationship goes. You recognize it in them when they are 14 when they won’t leave your house because they just have to talk to you about something. You see it when they are 17 and they just drop by to watch a movie or something. You see it when they are 19 and they are just back for the weekend and want to grab a cup of coffee to catch up on life. You see it when they are 23 and you are chatting about life on Facebook.

Maybe I’m just an abnomaly but my ministry to those kids continues long after I hand them a book and a graduation card. To do anything less would seem cheap. Like I didn’t even mean it.

“Programs are short-term. Discipleship is long-term.”

Maybe instead of trying to force discipleship into a 4 or 6 year box we need to re-shape youth ministry so that it starts with kids who want to be discipled and it ends… like at a later date when its over? Why are we trying to redefine discipleship instead of trying to redefine youth ministry?

There’s always room for a couple newbies in my life. As we get rolling with this new youth ministry venture in San Diego I can see the cycle starting over again. I’m getting to know 14-15 year olds who are looking for someone to walk with for the long-haul. I’ve got room in my life because the reality is that the ones I’ve been mentoring/discipling for the last 5-6 years don’t need much attention. That’s exciting for me to see it starting all over again. I’m hard-wired for it. But that’s how you would hope the process works, right?

Am I alone in this? Should we start looking at youth ministry as a long-term investment instead of a program?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

3 comments

  1. Adam,

    You’re not alone. This is something my pastor and I talk about often and we are in agreement on. Discipleship is a lifelong process. It’s not for a period of time to keep students from rebelling. We have to live life with them and help them through the fight in later years as well. What if this is the reason why the stat of kids “leaving the faith” is so high? Honestly I HATE that stat because it’s a load of crap. My stance is that kids can’t leave what they really don’t have. What if the problem is that we’ve approached YM from a programmatic stance for so long that the kids learned the system and just navigated through it and jumped through the hoops to please their YP and their parents? Are we so naive to believe that this isn’t a possibility or hasn’t happened?

    I know you can’t make every student a disciple and we don’t want to leave any kid out…and sometimes discipleship is hard and messy and it involves working through sin in the lives of people…but isn’t that what Jesus did? Seriously? Were his disciples getting it all the time? Not the 12 that I read about. That’s why it’s so important to walk with them into and through adulthood – of they want it that bad. I think that’s the key. If they want it.

    I’ve got some more thoughts on how maybe we have gotten to this point in ministry and I know more people do as well. My thing is that I HATE it when we in Christendom inflate FALSE facts and blame our own problems and issues on something that’s not even fair – the very people we are targeting. That’s what is going on with the statistic of kids leaving the faith. What it says to me is this, “It’s their fault. If they would have taken it more seriously they wouldn’t have walked.” Maybe there’s some truth to it but lets not lay it all at their feet. Let openly admit we’ve failed them and move forward to fixing it. This is why I like the Deep and Wide idea so much. It’s simple and Biblical. Go deep with theology and equip your students to share their faith with their friends and pray like crazy that God breaks their heart for the lost so they can reach out to their friends. It seems like someone else was all about doing ministry this way…

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