There is an overlooked principle that needs to be considered in the church as we think about youth ministry. It is rather simple and yet I would consider it a game changer. When missed, the results can be a mess of conflict or a path to departure. The principle is that how people start is how they continue. For decades, in many churches, youth ministry became something of an anomaly. We hired professionals to do the work, who were really just young men and women with an ability to connect well with teens. We figured that they know best how to reach and minister to teens and they made that happen fairly effectively. The anomaly that emerged is that the youth ministry looked nothing like the other ministries of the church. We figured that youth culture is it’s own beast and, therefore, justifies a unique approach. The unintentional consequence is that we create a gap between the youth ministry and the church, where the two almost operate as separate bodies. Twenty-seven years of full time ministry has given me opportunities to see firsthand the effects of discrepancies between a youth ministry and a congregation in regards to theology and vision. These have led to either messy conflicts or departing teens or both.
Avoiding a mess of conflicts between youth ministry and the overall church depends on consistency of theological convictions between youth ministry leaders and church leaders. One church whose theology is strongly Calvinistic hired a youth pastor whose theological hero was Wesley. After six months of theological tension in the staff, the church let the youth pastor go. It was not only staff discussions that were at odds, the difference in theology played out into the methodology of the youth ministry. I have spoken over the years with several pastors of non-charismatic churches who discovered that the volunteers leading the youth group were charismatic. What the students were engaging in were practices that the rest of the church would not appreciate. Removing leaders on theological grounds can be very tricky because teen’s loyalties tend to be based on relationships and theological differences are not as understood. In several reformed thinking Anglican churches, I have encountered youth leaders who engaged the youth group in Catholic spiritual practices that were not appreciated by the clergy of the church. Any differences in theological views can play out in a difficult and conflicting way. The end result at minimum will be the loss of leaders and in worst cases will result in dramatic declines in the youth group. Our churches should be passing on a theological perspective that students will value and seek out through the rest of their lives. This will only happen if our youth ministries are theologically consistent with the church.
Avoiding the creation of a path to departure depends largely on consistency of vision between the youth ministry and the church overall. Where a church values strong biblical preaching and teaching but a youth group values games and entertainment, students will not connect long term into the life of the church. They will, at best, seek an entertaining church after they grow out of the youth group, if they seek anything at all. If a congregation is not particularly missions oriented but the youth ministry is, the students will easily feel unsupported and possibly not understood. I have seen several instances where churches have hired youth pastors who were very evangelistically driven but the congregation was not. The end result was a youth group where 80% or more of the participants were not from the church and the church leadership did not see a reason to continue to employ someone whose work is mostly with students outside the church. Reaching too many unchurched students can cause the “church kids” to lose interest in youth groups unless everyone in the congregation (young and old) places a high priority on reaching the unreached. Our desire should be that those who grow up in our churches will participate not only as students but through the rest of their life. A consistency of vision between the youth ministry and the congregation is vital for such continuation to take place. Even in contexts where students tend to move away for college and not return, we want them to settle into a church like ours. To do this they must catch the vision of the church through the youth ministry in order to seek a church in their future with such vision and values.
The aim of good youth ministry is to pass the faith from one generation to the next. In doing this we want to create lifelong followers of Jesus and we want to sustain our churches as the place for future generations to worship and grow. Yet, we currently have of a generation of young adults who grew up attending youth groups who are largely not currently connected to the church. For this reason we must take seriously the principle that how people start is how they continue. That should cause to us to create a consistency between the church and the youth group experience. The consistency needs to be both theological and biblical in regards to vision and mission. This is admittedly just one part of the solution to the disconnect, but if we correct this we will take a giant step forward toward ending the anomaly of youth ministries that do not reflect the vision and mission of the church.