I just finished reading Michael McGarry’s new book A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church (Randall House Academic, 2019). Simply put, thisis one of the more surprising books I’ve ever read. I am no longer a youth minister, and so I did not expect a youth ministry book to profoundly impact my life. But through my reading of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, I have been prepared to follow Jesus more faithfully: as a parent, as a pastor, and as an advocate for teens and their families.
Here are the “Top Five” reasons I would encourage you to read A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry – whether or not you view yourself as someone who ministers directly to teenagers…
#1: The Book Shows that the Gospel not only Informs Ministry, but Transforms Ministry
In the seventh chapter (“The Gospel and Youth Ministry”), McGarry discusses the differences between ministries that are gospel-absent, gospel-present, and gospel-centered(126). A gospel-absent ministry denies or neglects the gospel. A gospel-present ministry occasionally articulates the propositional truths associated with the gospel. A gospel-centered ministry is one in which every aspect of a ministry is deeply influenced by the by the Father’s saving grace towards sinners in Christ by the Spirit – teaching, games, calendars, and more (129).
This particular chapter made me ponder whether or not my ministry is actually gospel-centered. Yes, I articulate the freedom and rest which results from our reconciliation to God through Christ – but does my pace of ministry reflect those realities? As a church, do we joyfully welcome those who have nothing to offer – even as the Father has done for us? Are we quick to work towards reconciliation with those who are different from us – even as a Holy God has made a way for sinful people to be reconciled to him?
Chapter seven of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry will have you asking the same type of questions – regardless of your ministry responsibilities. You’ll be guided to determine the areas of ministry where you are embodying the gospel, as well as those areas in which you’re only articulating the gospel. There is a difference between those two postures – and an awareness of that chasm is certainly worth twenty-five pages of reading.
#2: The Book has a High View of Youth Ministry
Youth ministry can be one of the most discouraging ministry endeavors. Any youth worker who feels like the “bruised reed” of Isaiah 42:3 should read A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, and particularly the first four chapters of the book. Any parent, pastor, or ministry leader who tends to view youth work as “JV-ministry” should do likewise.
You’ll be reminded in the first chapter (“The Landscape of Modern Youth Ministry”) of the dire need for discipling teenagers in the gospel. The second chapter (“The Old Testament and Youth Ministry”) reminds us, “[The] liturgy of Jewish worship was developed with a leading emphasis on ministry to children” (31). Chapter Three (“The New Testament and Youth Ministry”) and Chapter Four (“Church History and Youth Ministry”) illustrate the priority God has placed on discipling the church’s youngest members, as well as the strong (and well-researched) links that exist between effective youth ministry and long-term doctrinal purity (49). Through all of these discussions, McGarry shows youth ministry for what it really is: an irreplaceable component of God’s mission to the nations.
#3: The Book has a High View of the Local Church
Yet, as McGarry is quick to point out, youth ministry is never the end goal. “[The] purpose of youth ministry is to produce adult disciples whose faith took root and was nourished during their teen years….Youth ministry is for adolescence, the family is for life, and the Church is for eternity” (141-143). Reflecting this conviction, McGarry spends the entire fifth chapter (“Ecclesiology and Youth Ministry”) outlining a vision for linking youth ministry to local churches – tangible expressions of the Universal Church.
In my opinion, the fifth chapter is worth the price of the entire book. I lament with McGarry that ministry to teenagers has often been divorced from the life of the local church, and I believe that this chapter in particular will do much to restore a church-rich modus operandi for youth ministry (97). Youth workers of all stripes will be exhorted to keep in step with the local church as they minister to teenagers. Parents will be reminded of the importance of prioritizing their family’s meaningful participation in the life of a local church. And lead pastors and church planters will see that youth ministry is not something to be passed off to “other” pastoral staff or volunteers. Instead, “[The] entire church shares a commitment to and affirmation of the vital importance of teenagers in the church-at-large” (87).
#4: The Book Navigates the Relationship between Church, Family, and Youth Group
Understanding the important role that teenagers play in the local church is one thing; seeing that shift take place in our churches is quite another. How can churches, families, and youth workers collaborate to disciple the next generation – even in a culture of inordinate busyness, distraction, and other opportunities for sin?
Chapter Six (“The Family and Youth Ministry”) helps parents discern how they can more faithfully minister to the teenagers that live in their home(s). McGarry then exhorts all of his readers – youth ministers, parents, and otherwise – to reflect upon the proper relationship between the family, the church, and the youth group. In the eighth chapter of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry (“Youth Ministry as a Bridge Between Church and Home”), McGarry outlines strategies for youth workers to foster such an atmosphere: specifically by functioning as a “bridge builder” between parents and the church’s leadership (160). This ministry is undertaken in the spirit of McGarry’s prayer: “When students come home and when they come to church, may they find gospel prompted warmth that sprouts into lifelong faithfulness to Jesus Christ” (160).
#5: The Book Shows that Churches of All Sizes can “Win” at Youth Ministry
As a church planter who often hears, “My family can’t wait to attend your church… just as soon as you offer programming for our kids,” I found McGarry’s work to be very encouraging. Because the best youth ministries serve as bridges between the church and the home, churches of any size (and any budget) can effectively minister to teenagers. In fact, as McGarry points out, “In some ways, smaller churches have an advantage over larger churches in building youth ministry as a bridge…the smaller the river, the smaller the bridge will need to be” (143). According to McGarry, effective student ministry happens not when the youth group hits a certain attendance milestone, but when the church as a whole affirms, “[The] children of the church are truly ‘our kids,’ to whom the church family has pledged to minister” (147).
Perhaps this is the true genius of McGarry’s book – that through the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures and distilled through the history of God’s people, he leads me to take back the statement I made in the introduction to this article.
I may not be a youth minister, but I am charged to minister to the church’s youth.
And by God’s grace, dear reader, so are you.
As McGarry notes in his first chapter, ministry to teenagers is nothing short of pressing into one of our world’s most needy frontiers for disciple-making. But to quote Adoniram Judson (who, like McGarry, is a Baptist from New England): “The prospects are as bright as the promises of God.” A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry is a helpful guide for each of us as we minister to teenagers: not only because it provides practical advice for the journey, but also because it points us to the Faithful One whose promises are true. For those reasons and for others, I commend it without reservation.