In offering some alternatives to American youth ministry today, I think it might be most helpful to get basic so we can focus on what’s important.
Several years ago, in trying to simplify my teaching on youth ministry, I boiled it down to two dimensions: content and context. So I ran this idea past the excellent group of youth ministers that I work with and found agreement. I later ran across a book called Total Church in which the authors—-Tim Chester and Steve Timmis—-suggest that all ministry boils down to content and context. Wow! Was I on to something big? I loved how they unpacked these two dimensions from within Scripture. The book goes on to detail their particular church model (house church), but I could see the helpful application of content and context in a very different setting.
Content is without a doubt most important. Our content is the gospel as we see it from Genesis to Revelation. Our content is the entire Word of God. We ought to engage students in Scripture, teach them how to interpret and apply it to their lives, and encounter Christ within those pages. Youth ministry with solid content should be really exciting! However, I have seen groups that do nothing but focus on content. They have no fun, no social gatherings. They miss opportunities to build deep and lasting relationships. Evangelism is less common in such one-dimensional ministries.
Context is the other dimension. Our context is community. By this I am specifically referring to the qualities of relationships built within a group. Community became something of a buzzword at one point and then took on a variety of meanings. So I would describe this context as relational, creating a sense of belonging, pursuing unity in the body (Ps 133:1), and helping people learn to be the body of Christ. It must be outwardly focused to be consistent with being gospel people (rather than a holy huddle). It should also be diverse, reflecting the local population. We are not looking for uniformity. In this context we learn to love one another deeply. Not all students will become best friends, but they can learn to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
One Dimension or the Other
If these are the two dimensions of ministry, then all we plan and do should fit into one or the other. Our time at weekly meetings should be guided by building our content and context. This means we set aside time each week to get to know each other more deeply and learn to trust one another and work together. We pray together, discuss together, and generally grow together in Christ. We are no longer thinking as much about an individual faith but a community of believers, the body of Christ.
Our teaching and Bible study should help students engage with Scripture. Long ago I moved away from the traditional youth talk of sharing my ideas supported by a few verses. I started teaching from passages, allowing God’s Word to speak more directly to students. If you have not experienced the difference, you might not understand what I mean. Expounding Scripture can be done in a variety of ways, yet the result is the same—-getting a clear sense of the Bible’s meaning and figuring out how it applies to our lives.
So where do messy games come into play? I don’t think they have a place in our regular youth group meetings when we are centered around content and context. That sort of silliness belongs in camps, retreats, and other times when we have already done a lot of teaching and just want to have simple fun. Our regular time is too precious and limited to give away to silliness. Some of my friends in youth ministry would argue that we need humor to help students drop their guard or to break the ice. I would suggest that lively interaction where students get to really know each other accomplishes this purpose. If our teaching and discussions are lively, and we do not inhibit our own sense of humor, then even our content is fun and their guard drops.
Think about content and context next time you plan a youth group meeting or your calendar. If you run everything through those dimensions I believe your ministry will reach new depths. If we look at the early church in Acts 2, we can see they gathered around content in a context of community, and the Lord added daily to their number. A group where truth is proclaimed, lives are changed, and people love one another deeply is the most attractive youth group we could imagine!