Towards A Theology of YOUTH Ministry

An assignment completed in April 1996, as part fulfillment of the requirements of the Youth Ministry Major at Baptist Theological College, South Africa.

Ephesians 4:11-16

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

There are many ways in which a theology of youth ministry can be formulated. One of these is in terms of the verses quoted above. In fact, Ephesians 4:11 – 16 could be the vision statement of any church. In order to formulate a specifically youth theology, however, we must apply the various aspects of this verse to the particular focus of young people.

1. The Holy Spirit Gives the Green Light

It was He who gave gifts to mankind… (GNB)
The person referred to in this verse is actually Christ. Since Christ and the Holy Spirit work as a unity in each believer’s life, the distinction is not really important. What is important is that we understand that nothing can be accomplished unless the triune God is involved. We may seem to be doing things, but nothing of everlasting value can be done if it is done by anyone other than the Holy Spirit (cf. Blackaby and King 1994:15). Even Jesus, in his incarnated form, admitted to this (John 5:19 – 20), and told us that it would be true of us too (John 15:5). Youth ministry begins with God.

2. A Youth Committee of Note: Missionaries, Visionaries, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers

…that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers… (NRSV)
God gives people as His gifts to the church. This verse is not a complete list of the characters required on a youth committee, nor of the gifts in the church. Nevertheless, these gifts indicate some important areas of attention. We need “apostles” (this possibly refers to missionaries), who are continually reminding us of the outward direction of our youth ministry. Their hearts are for the lost world that doesn’t attend the youth group, and they focus our attention on the world beyond our doors. We need “prophets” or visionaries (cf. Acts 2:17), who are never satisfied with the status quo. They remind us that there is always room for improvement. We need “evangelists”, who long for the salvation of the souls of the young people we have contact with week by week. Finally, we must have “pastor-teachers” (the Greek seems to indicate this as one function), who point us back to Scripture, applying it to our lives and helping us to grow and develop spiritually. The guide for youth ministry must not be human wisdom, but Scripture.

Each of these types of people are essential to youth work. No individual has all the skills necessary to fulfill the tasks of youth ministry. A team ministry is vital.

3. The Young People Belong To God

…God’s people… (NIV)
The youth ministry is not “ours”. It does not belong to the leaders, nor even to the church. The ministry is God’s. This concept radically affects how we think and what we do. Our responsibility is to God: to do what He would do and to evaluate our success and failure by His standards. We can never take any of the credit or glory for ourselves. The focus of youth ministry is the young people that God places under our care, not the programmes that we design.

4. Child “Slaves”

…for the equipping of the saints for works of service… (NASB)
The first emphasis of this powerful phrase is to promote servant attitudes. We should never lord it over people, but should follow Jesus example in being a servant of all (Matt. 20:25 – 28). The leaders should model this, and the young people should emulate it. The emphasis is on each person serving the others in the group. Paul, in fact, often uses the word “slave” to describe his relationship to the people he ministered to (Gr. doulo” – e.g. Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 7:22 , cf. also Phil. 2:7; Rom. 6:19). There is no place for self-aggrandising in Christian ministry.

The second emphasis is that the function of the youth group is not only to minister to or for the young people, but to minister with them, and for the ministry to be done by the young people. The concept of body ministry (where each member is a minister) is essential to growth. Our task is not to do everything for the young people, but to equip them to do it for themselves.

5. Cogs and Springs and Tiny Bits are Needed to Keep the Body Ticking

…to build up the body of Christ… (GW)
Each part of the body, no matter small or out of the limelight it happens to be, is essential to the health of the body (e.g. blood vessels, kidneys, big toe). The goal of youth ministry is to reach every individual young person for Christ, to help them identify their place in the body, and then assist them to do that task effectively so that the whole body functions well. The process of youth ministry involves developing mature Christians who can reproduce themselves. Our goal is not simply conversions, but to make disciples. Our method must be to encourage participation by the young people.

6. The Unified Church of Today

This is to continue until all of us are united… (GW)

“Relationships are the key to effective youth ministry” (Burns 1988:21). This verse does not mean superficial, skin-deep unity, but at a deep-seated unification, brought about by mutual love and respect. This love must be clearly modelled by the youth leaders, as they accept each young person in the group, and as they work together as a leadership team to develop meaningful, growth relationships with each other and with the young people. “Relational youth ministry starts with relational youth staff” (Burns 1988:17).

The phrase, “all of us”, points to another important aspect of youth ministry, namely that the youth ministry cannot be divorced from the total ministry of the local church. It is not a separate programme, but should be a fully integrated activity in the life of the congregation. Having said this, there must always be a balance between integrating and separating.

7. Faith, Knowledge and Maturity

…the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (NASB)
As we have already stated, our goal is to produce mature disciples of Christ. This maturity will be the result of ongoing, relational discipleship. This requires spiritual input into young people’s lives, which is concerned with faith (influencing our “hearts” or spiritual being), knowledge (influencing our “minds” or intellectual being) and maturity (influencing our entire self). Youth ministry, therefore, is not a short-term endeavour. “Discipleship is a long-term, character-building relationship that challenges people to take what they have been given by our Lord and give it to other people” (Burns 1988:62; cf. Robbins 1990:57).

It should be noted that although this verse talks of the unity of the corporate body of Christ, it states the goal as being the maturity of “the man” (singular). The body image does not take away from our individuality. Individualism (where each person does their own thing) is wrong, but individuality (where each person is encouraged to become the person God intends them to be, for the good of all) is to be encouraged. Youth work involves a delicate balance of corporate life and individual souls.

8. Solid As A Rock (Subtitled: Learn to Discern)

Then we shall no longer be children, carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent. (GNB)
“Good discipleship involves developing a ministry that lasts” (Burns 1988:62). Youth ministry must produce disciples of Christ who can think and act independently of the leaders; who can stand firm spiritually; and who are willing to take a stand against evil.

9. Love and Truth

Rather we are to maintain the truth in a spirit of love… (REB)
The first ingredient mentioned in this verse, that will help young people to grow to maturity, is truth. This means not being afraid to tell them when they’re wrong and why they’re wrong. There must be boundaries – we must teach and model the correct way to live, and not tolerate sin. It means not always having to be a popular youth leader. Yet, it must be mingled with the second ingredient: love. The reason behind everything we do must be a deep love for the young people in the youth ministry. Jesus said that it is by the love that his disciples have for each other that they will be distinguished from the world (John 13:35). In a free-for-all world of individualism and isolation, young people are crying out for love, truth and acceptance. The youth group must be place where they can find all three.

10. And So It Grows On

…we may grow up in every way to him who is the head, Christ… (Lincoln)
The phrase “in every way” indicates a holistic view of development. The youth ministry can not isolate the spiritual maturity of a young person from the rest of their being. We are told that Jesus developed in four distinct areas: in the physical, intellectual, social and spiritual aspects of his being (Luke 2:52). Youth ministry must apply to each of these areas.

Again, the emphasis is on Christ as the head. We must help the young people to grow in all aspects of their lives, not simply to help become adults, but to help them become Christ-like.

11. And On, and On…

…from whom the whole body, joined and brought together by every ligament which gives supply, makes bodily growth… (Lincoln)
“Traditional” youth ministry has tended be “inward focused”, concentrating on meetings happening at the church, organised by church people for church-based youth. This involves the “joining” and “bringing together” of the Christians, so as to grow through mutual fellowship and discipleship. This environment for growth is essential. However, it is not the whole picture.

“The purpose of youth ministry is to point youth toward God and help them become involved in the Great Commission” (Black, An Introduction to Youth Ministry, pg. 19, quoted in the Youth Course Introduction notes, pg. 29). The image of the church in Scripture is one of organic growth, such as a vine (cf. John 15). The church thus grows not only in depth, but also as it extends outward into the world. In youth work, this means creating opportunities for young people to go on missions trips, to be involved in outreach and evangelism, in their own communities and beyond. Young people must be energised to be witnesses wherever they are, thus helping to grow the body of Christ.

12. Play It Again, Sam: “Each Part Does It’s Work”

…and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (NIV)
This final phrase of Eph. 4:16 sums up all that has been said before. Youth ministry must be relevant. It must meet both the perceived and the actual needs of young people, relying on the Holy Spirit, aiming at participation, and resulting in Christian maturity. It takes dedication to a long term ministry, with each person doing their tasks according to the gifts they have been given.

“The major imperative in youth work is to help youth into a sense of mission, of being sent for a purpose and a task. It is to know the sense of purposefulness that grips the person who has responded to God’s love” (Strommen, quoted in Robbins 1990:217).

13. Summary

In summary, then, the following are all vital elements of youth ministry, found in Ephesians 4:11 – 16:

· Guided and directed by the Holy Spirit, through prayer and total reliance

· Every member ministry, relying on spiritual giftedness

· Recognising the value of each young person’s life in God’s eyes

· Servant attitudes

· Never overlooking the quiet, shy and retiring people

· Seeking unity through quality relationships

· Discipleship of young people in faith, knowledge and practice

· Teaching young people to think and discern for themselves

· Creating an environment of trust, based on truth and love

· Ministering to the whole young person

· Creating opportunities for outreach and missions

· Expecting every young person to get involved

In God alone do we trust! He alone is the author and perfecter.


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Blackaby, Henry T., and Claude V. King. Experiencing God. Youth Edition. Nashville: LifeWay Press (The Sunday School Board, SBC), 1994.

Burns, Jim. The Youth Builder. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1988.

DeVries, Mark. Family-Based Youth Ministry. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

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Richards, Lawrence O. Children’s Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.

______. Youth Ministry. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.

Robbins, Duffy. The Ministry of Nurture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.

______. Youth Ministry That Works. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991.


GNB Good News Bible

GW God’s Word

NASB New American Standard Bible

NIV New International Version

NRSV New Revised Standard Version

REB Revised English Bible

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