In my last article, I argued that the family—not youth pastors—must come first as the church seeks to disciple and evangelize its children. Christian fathers and mothers must both be called to these spiritual responsibilities and intentionally equipped by the church to perform them.
One might get the impression, however, based on the family-centered emphasis of this article, that the biological family is a kind of atomistic entity somehow more fundamental and basic than the church family. In other words, one tendency for people who strongly agree with the family-focused idea is to begin seeing the family as the place for one’s fundamental spiritual identity, with the church existing merely to provide some “spiritual tools” as the real work gets done in the home. That is not a correct understanding of the family’s interaction with the church. The primary and most fundamental “family” for a believer in Jesus is the church family. My identity is as a child of God through Jesus, even more than as a child of my father and mother. Indeed, many people come to faith as children in homes where their parents do not know Christ. Their most fundamental “family” becomes the church, the family of God in Christ. The argument made in the previous article is for the primacy of the Christian family’s role in shaping, teaching, and training children, even as those children belong to the family of the church in a far more fundamental and eternal way.
It is my belief that even when wonderful, family-based discipleship and evangelism are happening in the context of the local church, there is still an important place and purpose for a youth ministry program. A church-based youth ministry—done well—can and should contribute to fulfilling the church’s goal to train up and send out life-long followers of Jesus Christ and servants of his church.
Description of a Youth Ministry Done Well
First, I need to clarify what I mean by youth ministry done well. I mean a youth ministry that is:
The apostle Paul tells his trainee Timothy that the “sacred writings”—the Word—are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). A youth ministry that is truly Word-centered does not simply include Bible teaching at various points; it is also dominated and led by God’s Word at every point. A better description than Word-centered might be Word-permeated. We are far from perfect in achieving this goal in our youth ministry at College Church. However, our goal is to let every aspect of our ministry—big group meetings, small group studies, one-on-one discipleship relationships, short-term missions trips, etc.—be permeated, led, and guided by the Word of God. It is only God’s Word that is able to make students “wise for salvation.” In short, a Word-centered youth ministry has this as one of its primary goals: send out students who believe, read, study, and love God’s Word.
A church-focused youth ministry has leaders who go out of their way to remind the students (and themselves!) that their youth group is not the church. It is a ministry—a Sunday school group, really—that is included in the local church. Youth groups get into trouble when they take on a life of their own with separate goal or agenda than the wider church body. A youth ministry that is done well encourages participating in corporate worship, equips students for service immediately in the wider life of the church, and intentionally reminds students that they won’t be in a “youth group” for the rest of their lives.
If it is true that the mandate for the discipleship and evangelism of children—from the earliest stages of God’s people—comes first to parents, then a youth ministry done well supports, encourages, and reinforces the primary ministry role of the Christian family in the lives of students. This means a youth pastor views himself as standing in support of godly parents, not in opposition to them. There are, of course, circumstances that may demand confronting parents; abuses of parental authority certainly occur. But, in general, pastors for youth stand with parents—partnering with them, and even equipping them, in order to reinforce the biblical and gospel truths that are being taught in the home. A youth pastor who sees himself only as a “youth” pastor has missed the point. Someone who leads a youth ministry well is really a pastor to families.
Benefits of a Youth Ministry Done Well
When a youth ministry is done well, it has great value to the life of the local church and to the life-long discipleship and church service of Christian students. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. Young people hear voices.
Whether Christian parents like it or not, there comes a point when every young person begins listening to voices other than theirs. Even kids who avoid raunchy television shows and attend Christian schools begin to be influenced by other ways of thinking. A youth ministry that teaches the Bible, engages culture in light of the gospel, and, yes, exposes students to some younger adults in the church who care deeply about their souls can add valuable additional (sometimes even “cool”), truthful voices to their lives. Parents, find other voices that you trust—voices that will reinforce your biblical and gospel training. Your kids are hearing lots of other ones!
2. Young people need to learn to minister the gospel to others.
There are certainlly many opportunities for this in churches that do not have youth ministry programs. But a same-age peer group can provide a wonderful opportunity for students to learn to interact as “independent” churchmen and churchwomen in ways that will prepare them for a life of service to the local church. For example, in the context of a high school Bible study, students have the opportunity to participate in a discussion, study carefully a passage of Scripture, and even learn to lead conversation with a group of their peers. A youth ministry can and should become a context for the formation of one-on-one discipleship relationships. Students begin to find others in the same stage of life with whom they can have honest conversation, prayer, confession, and accountability. A youth ministry can thus become a kind of training ground for service, leadership, and ministry as adults in the church.
3. Young people encourage each other.
The youth group, at its worst, can become an exclusive social club for Christian kids to have fun, see their friends, and play messy games. At its best, though, it can be a place of much-needed mutual spiritual encouragement, as Christian students come together to encourage one another in the gospel as they seek to live for Christ in sin-plagued schools and difficult home situations. Students often share common interests, as well as common struggles; they know what others in their situation are going through. It is hard to live for Jesus in the context of homecoming dances, gossip-filled hallways, and football locker rooms. An age-based church ministry for students provides a wonderful opportunity for gospel support and encouragement, provided that it is guided carefully by God’s Word.
4. Young people will grow up.
When the youth ministry is connected with—and in submission to—the wider church body, it can become an effective mechanism for equipping, training, and ideally, sending students into ministry and service opportunities in the church even during their junior high and high school years. While we are still growing in this in our youth ministry, we currently serve as the main launching point for students who serve in our church’s disability ministry, music ministry, greeting team, vacation Bible school, summer outreach programs, and short-term missions. The key here, of course, is that the youth pastor must never get too “jealous” for his students. He must be committed to actively pushing them into service and ministry opportunities that touch the wider church body. Those activities, along with sound biblical teaching and training, are preparing them to love and serve the body of Christ when they grow up.
5. Young people share the gospel.
Youth ministries often become an extremely important—indeed, unique—avenue for gospel witness in our communities. Our young people often seem to lead the way in evangelism, even by simply bringing a friend to youth group to hear the Bible taught. Students from non-Christian homes often first hear the good news of Jesus Christ in youth group meetings. They are simply more likely to attend youth group with a friend than a corporate worship service on their own. I praise God that, even in our imperfect youth ministry, students who have come to Christ in our midst are then doing something very exciting: taking the gospel home to their families.