My fictional letter from the “anonymous youth pastor” certainly hit a nerve.
Some thought the letter was passive-aggressive and condescending, written from the position of a youth minister who thinks he knows better than a parent how to raise a child. Others thought it was bold and forthright, prophetic in its call to parents to make the kingdom of God their family’s first priority.
There are a cluster of issues surrounding youth ministry, our expectations regarding church, our students, and our pastors. The wise and gracious feedback (and pushback!) in the comments section is what makes me enjoy blogging here. Those of you who read Kingdom People continually stretch and sharpen me, and I hope the blog does the same for you.
Here are a number of issues begging for further reflection. There aren’t easy answers here, but this is a conversation worth having.
1. Is the church essential for spiritual growth?
Youth ministry as it is exists today is something of an anomaly in the Christian Church. Some of you quickly pointed out that there hasn’t always been a “youth pastor” position or a “student ministry.” You are right.
At the same time, the underlying complaint of the “anonymous youth pastor” was not merely about student ministry, but church attendance in general. He is as concerned about Sunday as he is about Wednesday (perhaps even more so), and he is particularly concerned with what our choices communicate to our kids.
I think we’d all agree that “youth ministry” as it is currently practiced is not “essential” in the spiritual formation of a Christian. But what about the Church in general? Do we need to gather weekly with a body of believers? Is this essential for spiritual growth?
In our podcast culture of individualistic Christianity, church attendance becomes optional and supplemental, not essential. That’s why so many of us suffer from the part-time syndrome. Perhaps we need to have the broader conversation about gathering with the church – not just about youth ministry.
2. How can pastors and parents work together?
I recognize there is friction between youth ministers and parents. Ten years ago, it seemed like I was always hearing from parents frustrated by the lack of spiritual depth on display in youth ministry. Student ministry got caricatured as a place for pizza and video games and the occasional round of Chubby Bunny (before it became illegal!).
Lately, however, I have heard more from student ministers who are trying to change the “all fun and games” label of ministry and find resistance from parents instead of support. When they drive home the fullness of the gospel – including its radical grace and how it changes us from the inside out – they find that some parents seem more concerned with behavior than the heart.
It’s not surprising that many parents don’t put a lot of stock in a youth pastor’s counsel, especially if that youth pastor is newly married, has only small children, and has never done the difficult work of raising teens. But there’s something to be said about a passionate student minister’s ideals – something to learn here, even if it comes across as naive or idealistic.
How can student ministers be humble and bold in their ministry to families? How can parents be humble enough to learn from the idealism of their student ministers?
3. How can a youth pastor serve the entire family?
Many churchgoers see the student minister as existing to help “fix” their teenagers. Others see student ministry as an important rite of growing up in church, but largely contained to one ministry and separated from the rest of the congregation.
There is a need for more integration, where the student ministry is not only for students within a certain age range but also for their families. Strengthening families ought to be one of the primary ways we minister – no matter what our “staff position” is. Some student ministers will challenge the family’s priorities. Others will choose different hills to die on. Regardless, we ought to be thinking of how to fix the narrow focus of youth ministry.
What do you think? How can we make progress in strengthening our churches’ ministry to teenagers?