by Kurt Witzig

Group magazine, a leading youth ministry publication, conducted a nationwide survey in 1993 which yielded some surprising results. They found that almost 60% of families surveyed that youth ministry was a "very important" reason they decided to join their church and another 20% said it was "somewhat important." Seven in ten families said they would have "second thoughts" about joining a church that did not have a strong youth ministry.1 Obviously, youth ministry has become an important ingredient in today’s churches. How did this come to pass? When and why did youth ministry become so prominent?

The purpose of this three-part series is to answer these questions and to give a biblical perspective on youth ministry. In this article we will see the historical development of youth ministry. Next we will examine the methods and philosophy of modern youth ministry. And finally we will explain the philosophy of and the approach to youth ministry employed at Duluth Bible Church.



Before discussing the philosophy of youth ministry employed at Duluth Bible Church, I want to briefly look back in time and see how our modern youth ministry movement came into existence and how it has risen to its current place of prominence.

It is interesting to note that there is no historical precedence for youth ministry. As you read through the annals of church history, you do not find any mention of youth ministries or programs before the nineteenth century (but then again, you also do not find Sunday schools, nurseries, ushers, etc.). There is virtually no mention of the role of children or teens in the church.2

A Lack of Age-Gradation

In fact, before the nineteenth century, there appears to be no societal emphasis upon age at all. There really was no separate world of childhood and its various stages. There were children and there were adults. They lived their lives together, never apart. In the pictures of wedding feasts and dances the children are enjoying themselves alongside their elders, doing the same things.3 Joseph Kett, a social historian, makes this observation:

In preindustrial America the language of age had a nebulous quality. Expressions of age were not only broad but also interchangeable. Inasmuch as distinctions between children, youths, and adults were made, what did the often slack quality of the language of age signify? In part, it reflected the fact that many people in preindustrial society did not know their own age, much less those of acquaintances, friends, and relatives. In agricultural communities physical size and capacity for work was more important than chronological age.4

I cannot help but notice the emphasis placed upon individual birthdays in our day and age. Even today’s teens are celebrating their birthdays with elaborate birthday party’s once unique to much younger children. This institution of the children’s birthday celebration did not even exist in eighteenth-century America. The birth of a child was mentioned only briefly; the anniversary of the birth was seldom noted.5

When it comes to the teenage years, Kett makes this statement:

If adolescence is defined as the period after puberty during which a young person is institutionally segregated from casual contacts with a broad range of adults, then it can scarcely be said to have existed at all, even for those young people who attended school beyond age 14.6

The Sunday Schools

A critical transition for young people came between 1790 and 1840. There began a large migration of young people leaving their agrarian roots in rural America and venturing into the large and growing urban centers in order to find jobs. Both boys and girls participated in this mass migration; and when it was over, the very face of American society had changed.7

Many rural churches lost so many of their young people to the city that their existence was endangered. These youths now in the cities often neglected their religious life because the city provided them anonymity.8 By the mid 1800’s, adolescence was now a dangerous time of life that needed careful watching. It was a time marked too often by overpressure and an acceleration of experiences. And out of this growing condition came the beginnings of youth ministry.

These urban conditions for youth had developed in England by the late 1700’s. There was a growing problem of street urchins and ragamuffins who were cooped up in the dank mills and sweatshops six days a week and then running wild on Sunday, their one day off. Shop owners dreaded their weekly childish mischief. Because of child labor practices, these kids never got the chance to attend school, always having to work to help support their families. As a result, they could never climb out of poverty.

Out of this scenario, a man named Robert Raikes established the first Sunday schools. They were primarily an effort at societal reform in which paid teachers (subsidized by wealthy donors) would take the kids into various homes and teach them how to read and write in hopes of eventually liberating them from their uneducated and unskilled status. Many notable Christians supported the idea and by 1787 there were 250,000 children attending Sunday schools in England. Fifty years later there were 1.5 million worldwide, taught by 160,000 teachers.9

As public education developed, Sunday schools fell increasingly into the hands of churches and concentrated more on Bible teaching and publishing religious materials. This was particularly true in America. The Sunday school movement was a major phenomenon in England and America, with both religious and secular implications. It took place in the midst of a spiritual awakening that jolted the church out of lethargy and may have spared England the woes of a violent revolution. Wealthy Christians slowly became aware of their responsibility to the poor. The Sunday school movement planted the seeds of public education and revolutionized religious education, especially as it sparked the printing of Christian materials.10

In America, Sunday schools between 1815 and 1860 gradually ceased to be offshoots of Christian philanthropy aimed at the ragged poor. They became instead arms of regular churches, designed to induct the children of church members gradually into the full life of the churches. Individual churches began to introduce Sunday schools as appendages of their regular services. Changes in goals led to shifts in techniques. As less attention was paid to proselytizing among the unchurched, more was given to the physical arrangements of the schools, to the size of the classrooms, preparation of the teachers, quality of books, and age grading of classes.11 The goal of converting the lost seemingly was replaced with the indoctrination of the found. This shift in emphasis reminds me of the story of the life-saving stations that one by one turned into comfortable social clubs.

The Revivals of the 2nd Evangelical Awakening

The early 1800’s in America was a time known as the 2nd Evangelical Awakening. Revival fires burned over the entire nation, first in the East and then on the frontier. As this Second Awakening was beginning to lose some force, an evangelist by the name of Charles G. Finney arrived on the scene. Beginning in New York State in 1824, he conducted very effective meetings in several Eastern cities.

In 1830, Finney led remarkably successful revivals in Rochester, New York where he reported 1000 conversions in a city of 10,000.12

From that time on, revivalism became a feature of American urban life. In 1832 Finney moved to New York City. His revivals allowed shouting, groaning, and other evidences of emotion. These new measures became a standard part of revival work and the churches that used them grew, despite many critic’s attacks on such methods. Finney is given credit for introducing the "anxious bench" (the place to which inquirers went forward for conversion) and the cottage prayer meeting where non-Christians were prayed for by name.13 All of these practices were greatly distrusted by traditional Calvinistic church leaders. Before Finney visited a town, he recruited ministers and laypeople in local churches. It was a critical role, for unless local churches were willing to become involved in follow-up, Finney would not preach in that place.14 It appears that today’s leading evangelists have adopted practices that are over 160 years old!

These revivals are significant to the development in youth ministry because during these revivals a tendency toward teenage conversions began to emerge – a tendency which hardened into a mold by mid-century. Time and again, evangelicals involved in these revivals noted the prominent role of youth. Revivals not only attracted youth but often began among young people. Most of the converts in revivals during the early 19th century were in their teens or early twenties.15 This heavy involvement often brought on rebuke by older people who disapproved of this lopsided involvement of youth.

Doctrinal Disputes

Why would so many people be disdainful of the active role of teenagers in these revivals? The answer is rooted in the dominant (and inaccurate) doctrine of the time, the doctrine of Calvinism. Historically, Calvinists did not encourage early conversion as a normal experience. Rather, they were convinced that conversion in childhood or early youth was rare, with most conversions coming later in life after a maturing "process" was completed. Thus these mass "conversions" at the revivals simply were not to be trusted.

The famous revivalists (Finney, the Methodists, etc) believed that salvation was more a matter of choice reflected in a decision rather than a passive ascertainment of foreordination. Converts were more prone than ever before to describe their conversions not merely as "the awakening" but as "the crisis and decision." For a young person, religious conversion was to be the choice to end all choice, the final definition of life purpose.16 Additional doctrines such as emphasis upon sorrow for sin, the possible eradication of the sin nature, and the denial of eternal security put these new, young converts on shaky theological ground. In practice, conversion often did little more than usher in a new phase of uncertainty and confusion, a condition again chiefly caused by inaccurate doctrine – this time with an Arminian twist. Due to this confusion, coupled with the mounting social pressure for early conversion, many teens found themselves being "converted" more than once, giving further credence to the Calvinistic criticisms.

As America moved into the middle 1800’s, we can observe two major changes. First, the established churches were increasingly employing Sunday schools as part of their weekly services. They were mainly designed to educate the children of the church families. Secondly, and particularly in the cities, we find many teenagers involved with revival movements and dynamic preachers, but not involved with the established churches. In fact, they were treated with suspicion by those very churches. And the chief cause of this landscape was incorrect doctrine.

The Rise of the Para-Church Influence

After the Civil War, this religious scene intensified. German liberalism was taking hold, evolution was being propagated, and the blight of America’s cities and their youth increased. Earle Cairns, a church historian, wrote that "the challenge of these problems was the task of the Church after the Civil War."17 But it is interesting to note what efforts he then cites as examples: street missions in New York such as the Water Street Mission founded by Jerry MacAuley, the YMCA and the YWCA, the Hull House in Chicago, Goodwill Industries (though started in a local church), and the Salvation Army. All of these efforts were para-church efforts, not local church efforts. Which leaves one asking the question "what were the churches doing during this time?"

One thing they were not doing is attracting the youth of the day. The parachurch organizations were bustling with activity and outreach and were a genuine attraction to spiritually minded youth. Several new organizations came into being as a result of this youthful zeal. In 1886 the Student Volunteer Movement began with their motto "the evangelization of the world in this generation." This group was formed at a student conference in Mt. Hermon, Mass., sponsored by Dwight L. Moody. Before the year ended 2,106 volunteers had been enrolled for their ambitious cause and by 1935, the movement had sent over 13,000 volunteers abroad from North America.18

Also in the 1880’s, Dr. Francis E. Clark established the Christian Endeavor Society to "promote earnest Christian life" and to provide training for Christian service. The organization grew so rapidly among young people from all denominations that by 1885 Clark founded an international organization, claiming 3.5 million members by 1910 with perhaps two-thirds of these in the U.S. and Canada.19

The exodus of youth from the local churches into these parachurch organizations led most denominations to try and copy Clark’s model. The Methodists created the Epworth League in 1889. The Baptists started the Baptist Young People’s Union in the same year. The Lutherans founded the Luther League, and the Presbyterians their Young People’s Union in the 1890’s. By the turn of the century, more than 80 denominations had adopted variations of the Christian Endeavor program.20 A certain result of all this was the pull young people felt between their own church and the para-church organizations.


I would like to note three general observations in conclusion to this section on the history of youth ministry:

1. All of the youth movements sprung up outside the local churches. It was not until the 1880’s that churches made substantial efforts to minister to their youth with specific ministries. It is safe to say that youth ministry came into being due to a failure of the local church. This failure was first seen as many "churched" kids ventured into the cities and quickly "lost their religion." They were apparently not well grounded in their faith, nor biblically literate. This scenario is repeated too often today as many college-age young people abandon their faith once in their new surroundings. A second major failure of the church was their clinging to the false doctrine of Calvinism which forced them to be critical and un-accepting of the renewed spiritual interest of these same youth.

2. From the outset, youth ministry has been ecumenical in nature. All of the major movements within the youth originated with parachurch and ecumenical organizations (YMCA, Student Volunteer Movement, Youth for Christ, etc). This is indeed problematic on many fronts.

3. The reality of a separate youth culture came into existence during the 1800’s and has continually expanded. We see in our present day that the youth culture has become the dominant culture in our society (art, fashion, music, entertainment, etc). This has now become an established reality and any successful youth ministry must learn to deal with this, not isolate from it. ¢

Next time, we will examine the methods and philosophy of the modern youth ministry found in many of todays churches.


1 Editors of Group Magazine, "Youth Ministry’s Impact on Church Growth," Group, September, 1993.

2 In some instances it appears young children were discouraged from attending church at all. Elmer T. Clark, in his book The Small Sects in America (New York: Abingdon Press, 1949), pp. 202-203, tells of a written attack directed towards a man who insisted on taking his children to their rural Baptist church in the 1880’s. The letter said, "I do not object to seeing young people to meeting providing they behave themselves; and of course, it is especially encouraging if they seem to have an interest in gospel truth; but Mr. Gold goes farther than this, seeming to hold it as a sacred duty for Old School Baptists to take their children; even their babies to their meeting and see that they ‘give what attention they can to the preaching.'"

3 M.J. Tucker, "The Child as Beginning and End," The History of Childhood, ed. Lloyd deMause (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974), p. 251.

4 Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1977), pp.11-13.

5 John F. Walzer, "A Period Of Ambivalence: Eighteenth Century American Childhood," The History of Childhood, p. 358.

6 Kett, Rites of Passage, p. 36.

7 Ibid., p. 96.

8 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through The Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), p. 461.

9 A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events In Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1991), p. 139.

10 Ibid.

11 Kett, Rites of Passage, p. 120.

12 Howard F. Vos, Exploring Church History, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), p. 136.

13 Ibid.

14 A. Kenneth Curtis et al., The 100 Most Important Events In Christian History, p. 154.

15 Kett, Rites of Passage, p. 64.

16 Ibid., p. 82.

17 Cairns, Christianity Through The Centuries, p. 461.

18 Harvie M. Conn, "The Missionary Task of Theology: A Love/Hate Relationship?" Westminster Theological Journal 45, (Spr. 1983): 1-2

19 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), p. 24.

20 Bill Wolfe, "A Short History of Youth Ministry," Group, Sept. 1993.

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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