A PERSPECTIVE FOR YOUTH MINISTRY (Pt. 2)
by Kurt Witzig
This is part two of a three part series regarding a perspective for youth ministry. In the previous issue, I noted the prominence of youth ministry in many of today’s churches and then sought to trace the history of youth ministry to understand how this came to be. In doing so, several observations were made. First, there is no record in church history of youth ministry until the 19th century. Second, the youth movements that came to be all sprung up outside of local churches. Third, from the outset, youth ministry has been very ecumenical. And finally, a very dominant youth culture has come into existence in our society; a culture that a successful local church youth ministry must address head-on rather than seek to be isolated from it.
In this article I would like to examine the methods and philosophy of the modern youth ministry found in many of today’s churches. By youth ministry I am referring to ministry designed for teen-agers (not elementary school children), and modern youth ministry is referring to that which emerged in the 1960’s.
The Rise of Modern Youth Ministry
Today’s concept of youth culture was conceived in the generation following World War II. Suddenly there were many young people with free time, extra money, and less adult supervision thanks to the increased presence of the automobile and all the freedoms associated with it. Football teams, cheerleaders, bobby socks, rock-n-roll, muscle cars, and rebelliousness all came together to create a new youth culture. Into this scene came such organizations like Youth For Christ and Young Life; seeking to reach teens by way of exciting youth rallies. Again it must be noted that it was para-church organizations that were reaching the youth.
The success of these organizations prompted denominational churches to copy them in their methods and structures when developing their own youth groups. By the 1960’s most denominations had their own youth organizations incorporating music, recreation, and high profile leadership into their programs. And as these youth ministries developed, certain trends in methodology have developed as well.
One such trend is the inordinate emphasis placed upon entertainment. The idea is to get them to church and have a party. Iif they are at church at least they are not partying someplace else. I can recall as an unsaved teenager going to several dances held in church basements. I also frequented a neighborhood church that ran a teen-age drop-in center. This center attracted kids with a pool table, a foosball table, lots of loud rock music, an unsupervised parking lot, and, of course, an ideal opportunity to fraternize with kids of the opposite sex. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I learned that the center was actually an outreach of the church it was held in. I had assumed it was a city-run program that happened to use the church basement! I never heard any mention of God in all the hours I spent there.
Many youth ministries use videos, live bands, free food, comedians, lock-ins, and other such methods to get teens to attend their events. Kids come to be entertained and leave entertained. If a formal message is even attempted it often merely is endured. On numerous occasions I have asked kids that have attended lock-ins how much of the evening was given over to Bible study or devotions. The usual answer is "none," with the occasional "fifteen to twenty minutes" answer. A key principle to remember regarding entertainment in youth ministry is that whatever it takes to attract teens, you have to do at least as much, if not more, to keep them. This is bad news in our day and age where keeping an emphasis on entertainment is becoming increasingly difficult due to the varied level of entertainment options found in our wired, high-tech, electronic culture. As one youth ministry leader put it: "When youth ministry focuses on playing into the entertainment culture it encourages passivity and reduces it to just another consumer item." Don’t get me wrong, I am not against using any entertainment in youth ministry but it never should have a place of emphasis.
Another trend that became quite popular is the "trickle down theory." This is a strategy employed by many youth ministries to aim their programs toward the leaders (the popular crowd) of a high school in hopes that the peers they influence will be attracted to the group as well. The thinking is if you can interest these key kids, you will draw many additional kids as well. With this approach comes an increasing willingness to try anything (wild and crazy events, entertainment, etc.) since the end (good numbers) justifies the means. This was perhaps the main impetus behind youth ministries during the 1960’s and 1970’s; but it, as we shall see, has faded considerably since then.
The most important trend to note is the absence of stressing sound biblical teaching in youth ministry. Programs and methods are the emphasis, not the living Word of God. There even seems to be a notion that doctrine and theology are not appropriate for youth ministry. I often encounter entries on an e-mail bulletin board for youth ministry workers where the writers are upset when too much dialogue is given over to controversial doctrinal issues (such as eternal security, the role of sacraments, gifts of the Spirit, etc.). They usually remind everyone that the bulletin board is about youth ministry, not theology. Think about that. Can you really separate the two?
The Changing Youth Culture Since the 1980’s
In the early 1980’s a real change could be detected in youth culture. The effects from the gradual decline of the family had made their mark. The stark reality facing youth work today is that many people get married with the vow "Till divorce do us part." The problem with divorce is that it is not just the parents who separate – it is the children who get separated from one or both of the parents. And with divorce we are confronted with certain changes. There are financial changes requiring the custodial parent to work harder and longer thus leaving the teen with lots of unsupervised time. There are custodial issues and residence changes that introduce a level of instability and a radical change in the relationship with the non-custodial parent and the teen. There often is further relational difficulty for the teen as one parent criticizes and runs down the other leaving the teenager caught in the middle. Moreover, both mothers and fathers commonly respond to a family breakup by investing more heavily in themselves and in their own personal and romantic lives.1 And there are the changes brought on by the new boyfriend or girlfriend of the parents which may lead to a second marriage and the introduction of step-parents and siblings. This introduces a whole new host of problems, including children feeling left out of their stepfamilies and the high risk of sexual/physical abuse. Indeed, preschool children in stepfamilies are forty times more likely as children in intact families to suffer physical or sexual abuse.2
The only group in society that derives any benefit from these weakened parent-child ties is the therapeutic community. Young adults from disrupted families are nearly twice as likely as those from intact homes to receive psychological help.3 It is obvious that the effects of divorce upon children and teens is significant and brings about many undesirable changes. Yet today, 1 in 4 households with kids are headed by a single parent, and many more teens come from homes with step-parents.4
Another big change gaining momentum since the 1980’s is the electronic revolution. Teens now have Walkmans, cell phones, pagers, VCR’s, video games, MTV, cable TV, personal computers, emails, and the Internet; making them the most plugged-in generation ever. And the message behind the music, videos, and games is increasingly degrading. Never has a generation of kids been so engulfed with images of violence, sexual immorality, vulgarity, and indecency. One teen wrote in his student newspaper, "What is indecent at school? Not much. Not even mooning. Indecency is no longer deemed vulgar. It is now looked upon as typical day-to-day living."5 Probably the best measure to test the accuracy of the above statements is to observe the advertising world. The desire for profit reveals the real truth about what is important to a society. A 1995 Wall Street Journal article is titled "Violence and Obscenity: British Agencies Use Antisocial Ads to Reach Generation X," and is followed by specific examples of ads.6 In their listing of "what’s hot," the August 19, 1999, issue of Rolling Stone tells of the "Hot Pitch: Shameless Drunkenness," and then lists specific advertising examples. These kinds of ads would not be created unless it was proven that they would be effective at grabbing attention and garnering profits.
In her excellent article "The Class of ‘00," (Christianity Today, Feb. 3, 1997) Wendy Zoba listed some observations made by sociologists about our current generation of youth:
She then culled from her own questionnaire sent out to teens these statements that they say about themselves:
When I read these observations and statements to the teens in our youth group I asked if they agreed with these comments or found them unrealistic. They unanimously agreed. The point is that this societal youth culture is in many ways also the church youth culture. I am convinced that even our saved, church attending teens are far more desensitized by this culture than we dare admit. Even the broken home syndrome is soundly in place in our churches. I counted up the number of teens in the youth ministry at Duluth Bible Church and observed that 47% come from disrupted families. This new youth culture is a reality.
The Current Trends in Today’s Youth Ministry
With all these changes occurring in our youth culture you can also expect to see changes in how churches do youth ministry. The old trends are simply not as effective any more. As earlier noted, it is very difficult to compete for kids in the entertainment realm. And the trickle down theory is fading fast since our modern high schools are not dominated by one popular group anymore. Instead you will find a myriad of different groups (the brains, cools, dorks, druggies, Goths, headbangers, hippies, jocks, losers, nerds, partiers, peace freaks, pom-poms, rappers, richies, yuppies, stoners, wanna-be’s, and weirdos – to name a few!).
One change seen in many church programs is the shift from a heavy emphasis placed upon various forms of entertainment to a heavy emphasis placed upon contemporary Christian music. The thinking is that you have to use the music of this generation to reach this generation. This heavy emphasis on music also gives many teens opportunities to perform on praise teams and at in-church concerts. The average teenager involved in the average youth ministry today will hear driving beats, repetitive lyrics, light (and too often false) theology, and an emphasis upon experience.
This growing emphasis upon music is not limited to the youth ministry of a church but extends to the church as a whole. Many churches have standing house bands that perform weekly. The Christian music industry is indeed a multi-million dollar endeavor complete with radio stations, big-name artists, and big-time concerts. All of this has had a significant impact upon the churches. Time and time again someone will call Duluth Bible Church querying us about what our church is like, and one of the first questions to come out is "what kind of music do you have?" not "what do you believe and teach?" Music has become more important than biblical truth. Today you will find many church-goers choosing their churches on the basis of music and not on the basis of bible teaching or doctrine.
The other major change that is just now developing (and gathering momentum) in today’s youth ministries is the return to so-called Orthodoxy. This shift has been observed in evangelical seminaries for some time and now it can be seen in more and more youth ministries. The cover story for the July/August Group magazine was "Ancient-future Youth Ministry: A Strategy So Cutting-Edge It’s… Orthodox." The article tells of a network of youth ministries from California churches immersing themselves in fasting, centering prayer, journaling, praying using guided meditations, and taking contemplative walks. In their own words:
We’ve paired some standard youth ministry activities – a meal, games, and announcements – with the dust-covered Christian practices of silence, solitude, and meditative prayer. They seem out of place in a modern world dominated by over-dubs, quick-splice images, and faster hard drives. It’s a return to Sabbath-time, to God’s speed, to the slow and spacious places of the heart where kids can encounter the loving Presence of the ever patient Christ. This is a pre-modern youth ministry; and it’s not just a California thing.7
A different issue of Group magazine tells of a church group that planned a Lenten all-nighter that included hourly devotionals for reflection, meditation, and discussion.8 More than once I have encountered individuals who espouse that what is needed today for kids is a return to liturgical worship.
And this thinking is spreading. More than 1,000 people attended Campus Crusade for Christ’s fifth annual Fasting and Prayer conference in Houston, with nearly 2 million people worldwide tuned in through the Internet and at 4,100 satellite sites at churches across the country.9
It certainly appears that this current trend is a response to the chaotic youth culture we discussed earlier.
During the middle of the 20th century, the denominational church scene in America was dull, too strict, too boring, too liturgical, too orthodox. Hence the rise of the exciting and flamboyant charismatic movement and the emphasis on personal experiences. And now, with our too fast culture racing ahead, there are those saying we need to slowdown and learn how to meditatively worship God. The pendulum has swung again.
As has been the custom of modern youth ministry, these new trends also place little emphasis or effort upon biblical teaching and theology. As the pendulum swings and the culture changes and various needs arise, today’s modern youth worker embraces program after program and trend after trend – all the while forsaking the very object that has the answers, the power, and the stability they are searching for: the Living Word of God.
This lack of biblical emphasis and teaching leaves youth ministries adrift at sea without the appropriate anchor. This is why youth ministry is so susceptible to passing fads. I have observed several such fads since I have been involved in youth ministry. Perhaps the most recognizable one is the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) fad. This came complete with bracelets, hats, t-shirts, books, devotional material, etc. It reminds one of the tables overturned by the Lord in the temple! The entire WWJD premise missed the mark (are you really looking to raise people from the dead, walk on water, etc?). For the sake of accuracy and truth perhaps we could change the letters to WDJWMTD (What does Jesus want me to do?).
Another fad I noticed for awhile was the usage of certain terminology. For several years everything was "radical," and "totally awesome." Devotional books were pitched with titles like "Wild Truth" and "Incredible Devotions." I received a complimentary copy of the "Extreme Faith Youth Bible." It has cover-contained images of teens mountain climbing, in-line skating, and skydiving.
Another passing fad is the elaborate names today’s youth ministries dub themselves. Here are some examples: RAGE – Righteous Acceptance of God Eternal, SOAR – Sold Out And Radical, ROCK – Recruiters of Christ’s Kingdom (oddly enough, not a Jehovah Witness group), HIP – His Imperial People, SLAM – Shout Like a Maniac (their loose paraphrase of Psalm 95:1), and W.H.A.T! – Witness His Anointing Today (yes, this comes from an Assembly of God church). In an effort to keep up, we call the youth group at Duluth Bible Church "Young Peoples."
What we see today in our modern youth ministries are complex mission statements, great names, great programs, good entertainment, lots of contemporary music, but little substance. One youth leader addressed this drought of meaning in a book he aptly titled "When Kumbaya Is Not Enough."
But why this shallowness? It is my contention that it is largely due to the ecumenical influence upon youth ministry. The modern youth ministry encourages, even stresses, that individual groups get connected, work together, share ideas, combine efforts, attend common rallies, and so on. I am repeatedly receiving invitations to bring our church youth to concerts, pizza nights, youth rallies at various churches, comedians, and other such events.
How do these ecumenical roots produce this spiritual shallowness? In order to get together and join hands with other ministries, you are forced to put real issues under the table (how one is saved, how one is not saved, eternal security, the gifts of the Spirit, etc.) and instead major in the minors (programs, music, games, names, entertainment, rallies). Doctrine and theology are esteemed as inappropriate for youth ministry and if practiced could even be a turn-off. But no one can deny that there are significant differences in beliefs and practices between Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Methodists, and so on. These differences are in crucial areas of understanding (regarding salvation, for example). These differences are profound, even foundational. What is needed first of all is to be in agreement regarding these issues, for real unity comes from like-mindedness. Because of the constant effort within youth ministry to be ecumenical, strong bible teaching has never been emphasized. Today’s youth, like any generation of youth, greatly need to be taught the Word of God in a clear, accurate fashion. This is what prevents shallowness. But this is not native to our modern youth ministry movement.
There is a principle we employ at Duluth Bible Church that serves as an excellent reminder of our purpose: the only thing we can do better than the world is teach the Word of God. This is where we should be excelling.˘
In the next article, I will discuss the biblical philosophy of youth ministry at Duluth Bible Church and how that is practically carried out.
1Barbara Defoe Whitehead, "Dan Quayle Was Right," Atlantic Monthly, April 1993, p. 58.
2Ibid., p. 72.
3Ibid., p. 66.
4Laura Zinn, "Teens: Here Comes The Biggest Wave Yet," Business Week, 11 April 1994, p. 77.
5Wendy Murray Zoba, "The Class of ’00," Christianity Today, 3 February 1997, p. 23.
6Tara Parker-Pope, "Violence and Obscenity: British Agencies Use Antisocial Ads to Reach Generation X,"
Wall Street Journal, 10 April 1995, sec. B, p. 1.
7Mark Yaconelli, "Ancient-future Youth Ministry," Group, July/August 1999, p. 34.
8Roberta Updegraff, "A Night To Remember," Group, March/April 1999, p. 43.
9"Hungry For God," Christianity Today, 5 April 1999, p. 33.
Kurt Witzig has been the Youth Director at Duluth Bible Church since May of 1996 and is a graduate of the Grace Institute of Biblical Studies.
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