Sunday, September 27, 2015

The purpose of youth ministry. . .

Funny how youth programs have increased in size, budget, scope, and intensity at the same time the percentage of youth dropping out of church has ballooned.  As was already said, we are entertaining our youth to death and that is especially true of much of what passes for youth ministry (even in otherwise orthodox Christian congregations).  We seem intent upon the idea that pandering to our youth will keep them in church.  As we all know this has not worked.  Unlike the federal government, churches do not have the resources to keep throwing more and more money at the problem.  So maybe it is high time for us to think critically about youth ministry, its purpose and its design.

Why do we even have youth ministry?  Perhaps there are good and not so good answers to that question.  We have youth ministry for noble purposes like reinforcing the faith at the very time when rebellion and independence accompany the teen age years.  We have youth ministry to equip our youth to serve their neighbors and witness to their peers.  We have youth ministry to prepare them to be the church when they enter adulthood (a common if not mistaken idea of youth and the Church).  We have youth ministry to build relationships (both with God and with their fellow Christian brothers and sisters).  But we also have youth ministry to fix problem kids, to get them out of parents' hair, to entertain them and therefore distract them from real problems, questions, and challenges, and a host of other less than noble reasons.

I would suggest that the primary and exclusive reason for youth ministry is to prepare and equip them to keep the faith the rest of their lives.  Period.  Youth ministry is primarily to the already baptized and catechized (at least in my denomination).  We will certainly witness to those not yet converted and the Spirit will work through the Word as He certainly will to make Christians some who are not, but that is not the primary purpose of youth ministry.  It is not an outreach or an evangelism program.  We will certainly build relationships with God and with their Christian peers but youth ministry is not primarily social.  We will certainly teach but youth ministry is not primarily educational.  We will certainly encourage and enable them to serve their neighbors but youth ministry is not mercy work.

Youth ministry begins at home -- with moms and dads who are their children's primary role models and mentors of faith, piety, and worship. The Church does not replace the home but assists the family in the work that begins at home with the teaching of Christian parents, their own example of faithfulness in worship and piety, and their own living out of the values of the kingdom.  We might have to do more with families no longer in tact due to one or many factors but we ought to do no less than supporting parents and home as the primary places where the faith is first learned, where prayers are first prayed, where forgiveness is first given and received, and where love for neighbor is first modeled.

Christian youth are extremely vulnerable to the secular and post-Christian character of high school and college education, to the influence and pressure of an understanding of sexuality, gender, and family which is at odds with anything remotely resembling the Biblical order and catholic teaching, and to an understanding of the purpose of life which is largely self-centered and narcissistic.  How will they find their way through this without the help of the Church?

The first purpose of youth ministry should be to strengthen their faith and that implies the means of grace.  Good youth ministry is sacramental -- it encourages confidence in the Word of God which endures forever, the efficacy of the Word and Sacraments, and the shape of piety and Christian life that flows from this center in the Divine Service.  The liturgy is source and summit of the Christian life for young, for youth, for adults, and for the aged precisely because it is the arena of the Word and Sacraments.  We do not go to church for what we get out of it but because Christ is there with His gifts.  Period.

Within that first purpose, comes the growing understanding and acceptance of our Christian vocation.  We are who we and where we are by God's design and it is here that we first are called to serve the Lord with gladness -- as children to our parents, within the framework of the Christian family and home, in but not of the world and all its institutions, for the purpose of fulfilling not only the first great commission (Matthew 28) but the very first great commission (Genesis 1-3) to be fruitful, multiply, and exercise dominion over all God's creation.  Vocation does not begin with the choice of a career and the training that leads to that job.  It begins with Christ restoring to us what was lost to us (by our own willful refusal).

We are sending our children to increasingly unfriendly places -- from the schools they attend during the week to the media that occupies their leisure to the colleges and universities that give them the almighty degree to the values of a fallen world that loves a moment of pleasure more than an eternity with God.  Youth ministry had better acknowledge and incorporate into its design the reality of this changing world or our youth will continue to find faith untenable in their world increasingly at odds with that faith.  I believe we are losing more of our youth because they have not been well catechized and prepared more than because they are bored or disenchanted with the shape of the liturgy on Sunday morning.  A focus on entertainment ensures they will stay as long as they are having fun but, as we all know, life is not always fun and neither is church.  What is left for them when the fun activities are over?  In too many cases, not much.

I believe that our youth want to be engaged, want to understand the deeper questions of calling and purpose, the shape of life in creation and its restoration in Christ, the life we live now and the future prepared for us.  I believe that for too long we have used youth ministry to warn them about the dangers of sex, drugs, and rock and roll while failing to tell them in positive terms God's gift of marriage and family, the real danger of those things that addict, abuse, and then abandon us, and the music the mirrors values at odds with our baptismal life and vocation as the children of God.  Youth ministry has become another venue of the same social engineering mantle being forced upon schools -- fix our broken kids who come from broken homes.  The sad truth is we just might do this if we drew them into the sacramental life of the Church (baptism, private confession and absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar).

Certainly there is no reason you cannot have fun while doing this but having fun is not and should not be the primary purpose or modus operandi of youth ministry.  We have too much more of substance to offer them and this is what they want and need as they move more and more into a secular arena whose core and center are diametrically opposed to what we believe, confess, and teach.  All across America youth ministry is in high gear (with its piggybacking of the school year start up).  What are doing and why are we doing it?  The keys here are in two words -- rooted and planted.

1 comment:

ErnestO said...

How wonderful to witness years later that returning to things of faith in part was because of youth ministry. The beginning of my first years in Christ was fortified by the only youth ministry going in our little church and that consisted of the unending greeting and farewell by the ushers on each and every Sunday (circa 1955). Like so many acts in this life we will not know the outcome until we stand at the bar and Christ opens our life for examination...........