A Better Idea Than Youth Ministry
by Mike Yaconelli
Youth ministry is a good idea. But there’s a better idea.
Before we go there, let’s look at what’s good about the good idea of youth ministry.
Good Youth Ministry
Relevance. Relevance is good. It means students can think, talk, write, and sing about the gospel in a language they can not only understand, but incorporate into their lives now. That’s good. Very good.
Relationship. Relationships are good. Youth groups are places where kids can learn something about relationships, about friendships. They learn the value of praying together, working together, being together, and serving together. In healthy youth groups they learn how to be less cruel toward those who are different; they are confronted with a gospel that asks us to love each other—even when the person to be loved is uncool, ugly, uncoordinated, overweight, or a geek. That is good. Very good.
Youth ministry is about safety. Safety is good. It gives young people a glimpse of grace. At its best youth ministry is a place where students are safe: safe to be honest, to be real, and to express what is deep in their soul. Not all youth groups are safe; but where there is safety, it is good. Very good.
Youth ministry is about fun. Fun is good, too. Very good. Young people have very few places where they are encouraged to have fun. Students should spend a lot of their childhood laughing. Youth ministry helps young people rediscover genuine laughter and fun. Fun is good.
Youth group is good.
But there’s a better good.
It’s called church.
Not youth church, or contemporary church, or postmodern church. Just plain, boring, ordinary church. Yes, that’s right. Church. The place where people who don’t know each other get to know each other; where people who normally don’t associate with each other, associate; where people who are different learn how to be one.
Mostly, church is the place where we can grow old together. And it turns out that growing old together is still the best way to bring lasting results with students. Growing old together is where we teach (and learn from) each other what discipleship means in the everyday world.
I pastor a church that for the last sixteen years hasn’t had a youth program (in spite of the fact that I can provide free resources). Nothing. Just church on Sunday morning at ten o’clock where the students had to muddle through a very uncool morning service filled with mistakes, awkward gaps, interruptions, and imperfections. The music? In the language of students…it sucks. We’ve never had many students in our services, but we’ve always had some.
And here’s the crazy part. The few students we have had over the years? They keep coming back. Most of our students leave town for college or work; but when they are in town they are back in church, usually fighting back the tears. Why?
“It feels like home,” they say. “Everyone’s so glad to see me. After all these years, I still feel like I belong here. It’s like Jesus never left the building.”
Somehow, being with a group of diverse people week after week caused a bond to be formed—a family was created, and community happened. The mystery of community became a reality. Community isn’t complicated. It’s just a group of people who grow old together. They stick with each other through the teenage years, marriage, children, getting old, sick, and finally dying—all the while teaching each other how to follow Christ through the rugged terrain of life.
Maybe the body of Christ is the place where youth ministry was supposed to happen all along.
One of my sons lives near San Francisco. He still considers our church his home church. I asked him why. “Stuart Higgs,” he replied without hesitation. Stuart is in his sixties, slowing succumbing to the ravages of MS, divorced, and still clinging to Jesus. During the years when his life was turned upside-down by what I’ve just described, he managed to find the time to love my son, seek him out after church, pray for him, stay connected to him and, in the process, mentor and disciple him. Stuart Higgs may not fit the profile of the hip, post-modern youth worker, but he was my son’s youth worker.
. . . . .
The morning services at Grace Church are a long way from exciting youth programs, but it is the only youth ministry we have. I wonder what would happen if churches truly decided to take responsibility for the young people. They can still have a youth program and a youth worker, but the real youth ministry would happen when all of the adults decided to connect with all of the kids and do church together. Maybe there would be fewer students coming to church than attending youth group, but ten years from now, the ones who connected at church might still be there.
Mike Yaconelli's Bio:
The late Mike Yaconelli was in the ministry for forty-two years, both as a pastor and a minister to students. He was the lay pastor of Grace Community Church, owner and cofounder of Youth Specialties, former editor of The Door, and the author of Messy Spirituality and Dangerous Wonder.