A Different Way to Do Teen Ministry Campus Ministry Church, Prologue and Introduction

https://i1.wp.com/www.unitydanville.org/skedlogo.gifPrologue

I’m not a youth minister. I never have been. I do have four sons who’ve been part of youth ministries under several different ministers. But many readers have been or are youth ministers. Therefore, I write this knowing that in this crowd, I’m not an expert on this subject. And so, I’ll spread the posts over a few days, so I can modify my ideas (and not embarrass myself too much) as the discussion progresses.

These posts are built on the theology in the “Cruciform God” series, these posts in particular —

The Cruciform God: Introduction and Chapter One, The Self-Emptying God, Part 1

The Cruciform God: Introduction and Chapter One, The Self-Emptying God, Part 2

The Cruciform God: Introduction and Chapter One, The Self-Emptying God, Part 3

Introduction

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and it kind of came together for me all at once during the sermon last Sunday. Or maybe during the song service. I’m not sure. But it just kind of clicked.

But the question goes back several years. It all started when a youth minister from a nearby town told our campus minister that 21 of his students would be coming to the University of Alabama and attending our church and our campus ministry. And not a one showed up. They all made it to UA just fine. They just didn’t make it to church.

Now, these were kids who’d grown up in church, been active in a premier youth ministry, and were expected to be part of a church during college. And not a one made it to our church or campus ministry.

What went wrong? Why did all these kids leave the church before they even set foot on campus? Maybe forever? Why didn’t the six years of youth ministry — done well — not prepare them to be active members of a congregation after they left?

It’s an important question. But what really got me to thinking was the kids who did come. Most of them were from small churches with no youth ministry. Indeed, our campus minister (not our current campus minister) told me he’d far rather work with kids from small churches with no youth minister than from a large program with one or two youth ministers! He said the kids from churches with no youth ministry were more committed, more willing to volunteer, and less … spoiled.

Ponder that one for a while! Some of these kids came from youth ministry programs with salary and budgets of over $100,000 per year — all to make their children less committed. Plainly, something is seriously wrong with how we’ve been doing youth ministry.

https://i0.wp.com/image.guardian.co.uk/sys-images/Arts/Arts_/site_furniture/2007/08/17/noisepollution460.jpgAnd so I’ve been reading, praying, studying, and talking about this for the last few years, and I’ve largely gotten the “La, la, la … I can’t hear your!” response.

In the mean time, I’ve heard lots of great ideas about how to do youth ministry —

* It’s all about relationships!

* We need the parents involved!

* We need young adult volunteers!

* We need more involvement in service projects!

All good. None greatly different from what we’ve been doing for years.

Years ago I read this from Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (required reading), about a group of leaders in a youth ministry discussing how to prepare the kids for confirmation in a Methodist church. The group concluded,

Then someone, an ordinary Christian, said, “What we really want out of Confirmation is about a dozen youth who, in their adult lives, come to resemble John Black.”  She had named one of the “saints” of our congregation, an ordinary person who had lived his life in an extraordinarily Christian way. (p. 104)

And so they established a mentorship program. A good idea. The authors had earlier explained —

Learning to be moral is much like learning to speak a language. You do not teach someone a language … by first teaching them the rules of grammar.  The way most of us learn to speak a language is by listening to others speak and then imitating them. Most of the time we act as if morality is a matter of rules to be learned.  We seem to think that after we have learned all the right rules (Think for yourself. First be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Let your conscience be your guide. Abortion is wrong. Love your neighbor), we can act morally.

No. You learn to speak by being initiated into a community of language, by observing your elders, by imitating them. The rules of grammar come later, if at all, as a way of enabling you to nourish and sustain the art of speaking well. Ethics, as an academic discipline, is simply the task of assembling reminders that enable us to remember how to speak and to live the language of the gospel. Ethics can never take the place of the community any more than rules of grammar can replace the act of speaking the language. Ethics is always a secondary enterprise and is parasitic to the way people live in a community.

So the church can do nothing more “ethical” than expose us to significant examples of Christian living. In fact, our ethical reflection, at its best, is nothing more than reflection on significant examples. (p. 97)

So learning to be “moral” or “like John Black” or just to go to church rather than getting drunk every weekend in college is about being included in the community of saints and learning a way to think and to be that’s different from how the world thinks and is. Powerful stuff.

But I think formal mentorship programs aren’t the way to go. They aren’t bad or wrong or anything. They can be very effective. They just aren’t really the same thing as being a part of a moral community, are they?

Now, at this point a question comes up that’s just begging to be asked: why isn’t the youth ministry program itself a moral community? Why didn’t the kids pick up good Christian values in their six years with ministers and volunteers? Why indeed?

Note

My congregation has two very fine, young youth ministers, but I’ve been working with youth ministers since before my oldest was born, and he’s older than they are. And before my church hired our first youth minister, I was part of a team of young adults who led a youth ministry program. And we were really bad at it. For that matter, I grew up with a couple of part-time, summer youth ministers, way back when woolly mammoths roamed the earth.

I’ve been studying youth ministers and youth ministry for a long time, and many of our youth ministers have been good friends, and we’ve discussed theories and approaches many times searching for that something that was obviously missing but none of us could put a finger on. That thing.

My point is that nothing here is to be taken as a criticism of our present youth ministers or any for our former youth ministers in particular. This is about youth ministry in general and how it’s, in general, done.

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29 Responses

  1. jay, i’m not involved in youth ministry, but i did grow up in one. and i currently have a lot of questions about youth ministry. so i’m anxious to read this series. i don’t want to in any way take away from the ideas you’re going to present, but…

    i feel the biggest contributor to young people walking away from Christ in or before college is their family of origin. apparently (assumption coming) this series is moving us towards an idea of moral community. but too often the smallest unit of community many kids are in is not moral — or is moral only when it’s convenient. or is moral in attempts to earn salvation. or is moral and not spiritual. etc.

    do we see youth ministry as a sort of fall-back plan? is it intended to serve most the kids whose parents are not Christians? or do we intend it to complement what parents are doing already? clearly, Christian parents rely too heavily on youth ministers to instill faith in, and demonstrate it to, their children — why are parents so quick to give away their responsibility? are we nurturing this further by launching bigger and bigger youth programs? i’m not against youth ministry; i’m just curious what our thinking is on this. what is the real purpose of youth ministry? what do we intend to accomplish with it?

  2. One of the subtle themes of the scriptures is that younger people should learn from older people.

    Mentoring is the most popular word for this type of relationship today. And it is a theme I’d like to see emphasized more, not only in youth ministry, but in congregational life in general.

  3. There’s a great book addressing this issue, called Family Based Youth Ministry. Key quote:

    During the last century, church and parachurch youth ministries alike have increasingly (and often unwittingly) held to a single strategy that has become the defining characteristic of this model: the isolation of teenagers from the adult world and particularly from their own parents.

    That model just hasn’t worked.

  4. Jay, I think you and I had some correspondence over this very matter of campus ministry. Students must be a part of church and church done right in order to transition.

    As a starting point, any ministry that does not place Christ as first and foremost is doomed to failure. Methodology may be different but the message must be Christ.

  5. Some strong arguments can be made in favor of small churches and small schools. My wife and I are products of both. My three kids are products of both. They are 33, 30, and 26. They are faithful Christians and, to my knowledge, always have been. They have not gone off into liberalism or radicalism. They have college degrees (one a terminal degree) and successful careers and families (one is still single).

    I think it is more about the parents than the youth ministry. If the home is a Christian community (self-emptying), that should carry over into the child’s adult life. I believe that it will.

    This is why we need to “carefully follow” the entire teaching of the gospel in our lives. We studied 1 Timothy 4 at White’s Chapel last night. It contains this text.

    1 Timothy 4:6 NKJV 6 If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed.

    Also,

    1 Timothy 4:12 NKJV 12 Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

    I would think the kids need to see this in the youth minister (and the entire congregation, of course). I would weight this higher than special structured activities.

    Jay, I wonder if some of those 21 kids you mentioned may have gone to another congregation in Tuscaloosa or, maybe, went home on the weekends. Surely 21 of 21 didn’t just quit.

  6. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a dad who, with his wife, home schooled their children. Most have grown and have started families of their own, and most, if not all, are doing well on every front.

    We talked about the socialization problem that so many public school advocates cite as a weakness of home schooling. He pointed out that the majority of the socialization that happens in school that doesn’t happen in the home is negative.

    My sense of his comment was that when kid are home schooled, they learn to share resources and how to respect and get along with adults. In public shool, they tend to learn they all get their own “whatever,” that relationships are with peers, not adults, and that they don’t really need ot get along with adults, they just need to “fly under the radar” if they are going to misbehave.

    I don’t mean to co-opt this into a discussion of home schooling, but I do wish to observe that there may be a parallel here. Our children “learn” the faith by deep relationships with people who live the faith and have a deep and genuine love for them. I’m looking foward to further installments.

  7. Mike, you hit a very valid point. If our youths’ only spiritual interactions come with other youth, then they will never understand how Christ relates to their experiences in the real world because most youth in America don’t have the first clue about the real world outside of TV. (That’s another though not unrelated topic altogether) Other than in school where in life do we think that our young people will ever have to totally function within a group of people of their own age? It’s the most irrelevant setting in the world.

    By the way, as an educator whose children are homeschooled, I can assure you that I see a world of difference in the way my own children interact with adults vs. the children I teach daily, and that’s a good thing for my kids.

  8. wow, i’m impressed that this guy home-schooled WITH his wife. that seems rare.

  9. Jay,

    This tough part is that regardless of statistics, many parents nevertheless *expect* you to put together a ‘teen-spoiling social program.’ And they think of you as failing to do your job if it’s not more or less a public-school-extra-curricular-activities-alternative. What to do?

    Funny enough, i rarely had problems with kids at any of my three youth ministry jobs. i did, however, have lots of run-ins with parents–mostly the same ones over and over again. If parents insist on being so controlling, why don’t they just *do* the ministry program themselves rather than clubbing the youth minister over the head every week?

    –Guy

  10. James, he did, in fact, school with his wife. He led devotions with his family at breakfast (including acapella singing) before he left for work. His wife set up their lessons so that dad could work with them in his areas of expertise in the evenings and on weekends, and he regularly reviewed lessons with his kids. And he worked full time. (I’m worn out thinking about it.)
    The wife compensated in other ways so that dad didn’t feel outrageously overwhelmed. And they are both very high energy people. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

  11. that’s impressive. my wife and i plan to home school (because we live in tanzania). so i’ve apparently got to either get my act together, or make sure she doesn’t read this string of comments…

  12. I agree that perhaps we should be focusing more on raising up disciples in our homes. Ideally student ministry would simply serve as a suppliment and reinforecement of what the kids first learn at home.

    Of course, that is the ideal.

    I like your point about mentoring and encouraging “hands on” ministry among teens.

  13. John,

    If they went to another congregation, it wasn’t a Church of Christ — and they never gave us a chance — meaning they were fleeing the Churches. Some may well have gone home on weekends, but our campus ministry’s largest attendance is Wed night. We have lots of active students who go home many or most weekends.

  14. Guy,

    I agree that the parents are often a big part of the problem. Part of that is because they desperately want their kids to be happy in the teen ministry (not entirely unreasonable) and so advocate for whatever the kids wants (not reasonable at all). But my experience is that the parents have rarely been given a really good theory for what the teen program is supposed to do, so they’re left with ideas like “help my kids enjoy church” and “bring lots of friends.” If the parents were taught the purposes of the program, and if the purposes make sense, most will support it.

    Moreover, if the youth ministers share with the elders — in advance — what they’re trying to do and why and discuss these ideas with the elders, the elders will support them. If the elders find out what they’re trying to do only after the parents complain, well, it’s a problem for everyone.

  15. Danny and all,

    I agree that the parents have the primary responsibility for raising their children in Christ. Totally. And I think most of us have no clue about how to do that. Part of the reason is we’re not sure about how to “do Christianity” now that we’ve left the legalism of our childhood. If Christianity isn’t about checking certain boxes week after week, what’s it really about?

    Youth ministry is not the cure for bad parenting, but if we struggle to do youth ministry well it’s likely because we’re not real sure about how to do parenting well. After all, the parents have a huge influence on how we do ministry, even if the ministers are often not parents. The ministers are trained by parents and they’re overseen by parents.

    So it all ties together.

  16. Amen Jay. I agree 100% with what you have written here.

    My experience has been that the “youth groups” that I have known in the past have kept themselves separated from the rest of the church, you know — the body of Christ.

    I really believe that the parents who raise their children properly in the Lord, would often do well to protect their children from said “youth groups.” For oftentimes, the children who are actually spiritually minded, will be made fun of and/or made to feel like nerds, when a part of a professional youth group.

    I think that the money spent on youth groups should be put to better uses and that the youth should rub more elbows with their elders.

    That they should learn more from the mature…not from each other.

    And that the proof is in the pudding.

  17. On the group of 21: I wonder if any of the congregations tried to contact them directly, perhaps by phone. When my two sons went to UA, I dont think anyone initiated any kind of contact. Will UA supply a list of all those that indicated “church of Christ” when they registered (if they are asked for religious affliation)?

    This is slightly afield, but perhaps not too far. The university did not challenge my sons faith in any way that I recall. One was even a biology major. The faith issue was just kind of left alone. We had an excellent experience with Alabama, and that’s coming from a Freed-Hardeman alum.

    BTW Jay, one of our deacons from Whites Chapel was at your service Sunday. He was visiting his son who goes to UA and worships at UCC.

  18. John,

    I know considerable follow up work was done — including invitations to summer events in anticipation of the fall and visits by their preacher from their home congregation after they moved to Tuscaloosa.

    UA does supply a list of all CoC affiliated students but it comes very long after the semester starts and many students decline to identify themselves with the CoC — to avoid getting contacts.

    Sometimes the youth ministers let us know who to expect in the fall, but otherwise we have no way of knowing.

    I hope your deacon had a good experience.

  19. The following are my personal observations.

    Of my youth group (10 of us). 50% can be found associated with a church group today. 4 of 5 who went to a Christian college and 1 of 5 who either went to a secular college or no college are among those 50% who still associate with a church group of some kind.

    Of the 20 or so I taught in Bible class while they were teens (the eighties) only those who spent time at a Christian college will be found in a church setting most weeks today.

    About 80% of those in my children’s youth group (graduated about 5-7 years ago) are still attending worship services regularly. 90% of those attended or are attending a Christian college.

    The absolute best influence I have observed over the years is youth group attendance at a Christian college summer camp (Horizons at Freed, Up Lift at Harding, etc.). This is the one visible activity I have seen that seems to make a huge difference.

    Yes, there are relationship issues between teen and parent that support the above.

    Yes, I was the one of five who didn’t attend a Christian college. I understand there are exceptions in both directions.

    Food for thought.

  20. Rich wrote:

    Of the 20 or so I taught in Bible class while they were teens (the eighties) only those who spent time at a Christian college will be found in a church setting most weeks today.

    I wonder whether this demonstrates cause or effect. In an environment where people believe and are taught that spiritual people should go to a Christian college, won’t the most spiritual people make that choice? So choosing to go to a Christian college might just reflect a level of conviction and commitment that was there before setting foot on campus.

    I come from a different kind of environment — one where the vast majority of members were not raised in the churches of Christ but were converted “from the world”, many of them in campus ministries at secular colleges. Most of us would choose to send our kids to a secular college, but only where they could be part of a dynamic campus ministry. Both of my daughters did so (after becoming Christians during high school), and both married men who were converted in those campus ministries.

  21. Jay,

    In my mind most ministry to youth should be done by their parents. I believe that is the way God meant it. So the focus may be how do we equip young parents to better minister to their kids? I think this mentorship is far deeper than another program or youth ministry fad. It think you are on the right track.

  22. Jay, I appreciate you talking about this. I have had our teens’ needs particularly on my heart over the past few weeks. In my particular fellowship, the conversation has been focussed on youth and family ministry, aiming for the nexus where parents training children in a community of faith with mentors is the goal. All the research I’ve seen on the subject reenforces the idea that adult connections, parents and other adult relationships, impacts teens and their transition into living as adult followers of Jesus. I have witnessed approaches to teen ministries that seems to work on the idea they will be teens for their entire life rather than preparing them to be Christians for a lifetime. Someone mentioned some of the “mountain top” experiences such as camps. I know having teens I’m ministering to in a smaller family, these experiences are significant. In fact, some of my young ones are going to a regional teen prom this weekend. I am attaching a link to a web site that has some great emerging resources, including some great messages from some youth and family conferences. http://www.liveit2giveit.org

    Grace and peace, Lannie

  23. Rich,

    Flavil Yeakley’s research strongly agrees that those who attend a Christian college are much more likely to remain active in church. What the studies don’t tell us whether it’s cause or effect. In my case, I chose Lipscomb because I was serious about my Christianity — I wanted to meet a good Church of Christ girl, learn Bible, and learn Greek. So I think I chose the Christian college route due to already being convicted.

  24. Lannie,

    I’m a fan on mentoring, as it’s had a positive impact on some of my kids. And I’m a fan of mountaintop experiences, provided we don’t unintentionally communicate that Christianity is a search for mountaintop experiences.

    And … after the teen becomes an adult, where will he find his MT experiences? So I guess I’m thinking I’d rather the MT experiences not be generated by great youth rallies and instead come from ministry within the church. Of course, this means the church needs to do ministry that produces MT experiences.

    We need a Christianity where kids grow up to experience ever-better things rather than looking wistfully back at those great events when they were teens. And that tells us something about the poverty of how we do church as adults more than it criticizes youth ministry.

  25. Jay, I’m with you; the MT experiences can’t be the whole. But I do believe the analogy of scripture makes the case that times of celebration and special experiences have their place. Nothing replaces learning the rhythm of a daily walk with Jesus where you take your cross and follow him with grace as your guide. We learn this in community, with our bibles and heart open, as we submit more each day to the influence of the Holy Spirit. I think teens are more and more conditioned to expect a consumer culture because we are in a consumer culture. But life as followers of Jesus is counter cultural no matter your age. I think tayloring teen ministry completely to their felt needs is a poisoned cup. Yet we can’t ignore the special place they have in life. I also think a significant part of this conversation could be the churched and unchurched teens. The children who’ve grown up in church are like children of privilage with those pit falls. They can more easily conform to the church culture with out being transformed. On the other hand, unchurched kids have a harder time conforming to the culture but may be more open to the gospel. Although not specifically about teenn ministry, I just wrote something examining Jesus’ approach to building an audience and customers by giving the people what they want. It’s called Marketing, Mice and the Light of Truth. Good feedback, Jay.

  26. (I suspect you mean eldest, rather than youngest in the notes; I can’t believe youth ministers younger than your youngest.)

  27. Cathy,

    They are very young, but not that young. I’ve fixed it. Thanks.

  28. Hmm, I still see youngest. (If you’re wondering why I know about how old your kids are, it’s because I’m your niece.)

  29. Cathy,

    Delighted to have you as a reader.

    You’re right. My edit didn’t stick. Probably something about not saving my changes.

    So one heavenly day, Satan challenged Jesus to a computer coding contest. He figured he had a natural advantage. But Jesus accepted the challenge, and for millions of years they coded one vs. the other.

    As the deadline approached, Satan had move well ahead in the contest, and it appeared that he was a sure winner — when a bolt of lightning struck, shutting both computers down.

    When they rebooted, Satan’s work was all lost, whereas Jesus’ hadn’t lost a thing — making him the winner.

    You see, Jesus saves.

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