A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church

Written by Michael McGarry Reviewed By Michael Hyam

In A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, Michael McGarry addresses some of the central concerns of youth ministry today. Questions such as: is youth ministry biblical? Is the local church structured and programmed in a way that silently encourages parental negligence? And, of course, the dropout rate. McGarry emphasizes “a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family in co-evangelizing and co-discipling the next generation” (p. 3).

The aim of this review is not to summarize each of the chapters but rather to engage with some of McGarry’s main points and offer some thoughts for my own context here in Sydney (and maybe even beyond).

McGarry outlines three of the foundational problems facing modern youth ministry: (1) the dropout rate; (2) the nexus between the dropout rate, adult faith and our changing culture; and (3) the fragmentation between youth ministry, the family and the Church. These issues are not new. We can all acknowledge that we need to do better at ministry transitions (which I think we are), engaging our culture (not as much) and addressing the connection between the church and our families (it’s on the agenda but we have more work to do).

To address these problems, McGarry encourages gospel-centered youth ministers to connect young people with God and his people. Young people are not going to be transformed by their parents’ or youth pastor’s wisdom but by the power of God (p. 117). To connect and grow our young people we need to emphasize “the narrow and broad gospel” (p. 117). “The narrow gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection in order to redeem and secure the people of God by grace through faith” (p. 117). This is the call for faith and repentance. The broad gospel “grounds the believer in a worldview saturated by the grace of God” (p. 117). This emphasizes the communal identity of the Christian within salvation history.

Both the narrow and broad gospel are necessary components to develop the faith of young people, yet McGarry identifies that there is a tendency to focus almost entirely on the narrow gospel which has led to a generation of Christians in the US with an “individualistic faith that is theologically under-developed” (p. 118). What we need is to preach the gospel “reflecting both the narrow and the broader gospel so that teenagers grow a faith that is both personal (narrow) and deep enough to shape a Christian worldview (broad)” (p. 118).

This is not easy to do, but I think it’s essential. What we need to do better is understand the world of teenagers and how the biblical text can be brought to bear on them with “pastoral care and conviction” (p. 133). The continuing challenge for youth pastors, then, is to manage their time well so that they can be serious in their preparation of God’s word, while also finding time to engage with the young people in their “patch” outside of school times.

One of the biggest challenges for many churches, and their youth ministries, is their lack of engagement with non-Christian young people outside the church family. What is our strategy to reach these young people? Are they even on our radar? This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip. But how are we attempting to engage those beyond the reach of our kid’s friendship groups? Are we so busy maintaining (ineffective?) programs in our churches that we miss opportunities to engage with our local communities in meaningful ways? I have had more gospel conversations at the local sporting clubs in the last few years then I have at church! This means prayerfully considering how we are going out to the young people rather than simply inviting people in.

At the heart of McGarry’s approach is the importance of the local church and the connection between the church and her families. In fact, one of the major proposals of the book is that “youth ministry serves as a faithful bridge to lifelong discipleship when it is an expression of meaningful partnership between the family and the local church” (p. 142). We will come back to the idea of the “faithful bridge” in a moment. The point for now is that youth ministries need to seek more intergenerational integration not less (p. 137). McGarry believes that “creating age-specific worship venues that separate generations during gathered worship, aside from childcare and ministry to young people, simply has no biblical foundation” (p. 137). In fact, they seem to be “the exact opposite of what the Bible presents as normative” (p. 137). Amen to that! What we need to do is be more intentional to ensure teenagers are not merely welcomed at church but are also seen as valued contributors. “Creating opportunities for students and adults in the church to build friendships and get to know each other should be seen as a vital aspect of the church’s ministry to teenagers” (p. 138). Amen again!

Overall, I found that McGarry’s perspectives resonate with my own experiences and understanding of youth ministry. However, I’d challenge his use of the “faithful bridge” metaphor (p. 142). Part of McGarry’s argument is that in the past the church’s youth ministry has been the “destination” rather than “the link” between the family and the church (p. 142). I get that. Yes, youth ministry is temporary and parents can have more influence in their children’s lives than youth ministers (p. 142). But the danger of the bridge metaphor is that it pushes the local church and families into two separate spheres that are disconnected. Christian families are a part of the local church and the youth ministry is not separate to the local church. If we want to use a metaphor (knowing that none are perfect), maybe the space shuttle is a better one. As a space shuttle takes off it has two solid boosters and a fuel tank that are attached to it. As the shuttle takes off and it reaches orbit, the boosters and fuel tank separate leaving the shuttle to propel towards its destination. Maybe children’s and youth ministry are the boosters and fuel tank. They help our young people launch into life under Christ, but after achieving their goal, they fall away having fulfilled their purpose.

Ultimately, I found McGarry’s book a great read and encouragement. It made me think that youth ministry continues to grow up. There is an impressive range of topics covered, with some important insights into the history of youth ministry and the nature and purpose of discipleship. As a Reformed Anglican, I found myself questioning McGarry’s thoughts regarding the place of children in the church, the concept of church membership, and the need to evangelize our children (p. 112)! But the fact that the book raises such questions does not diminish its value. In fact, it would be a great book to read with your ministry team or to use in a youth ministry course as a foundational textbook.

Michael Hyam

Michael Hyam
Youthworks College
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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