It is God’s design that His Gospel, the Good News of salvation for all who believe in Christ, should be passed down throughout history by each generation reaching and teaching the next. This was clearly spelt out in Deut. 6:6-12, repeated in Deut. 32:45-47 and in Joshua 24. Yet, one of the saddest verses in Scripture is the indictment in Judges 2:10, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel” (NIV). The indictment is not against the wayward youth, but actually against the older generation who failed to correctly nurture them. It appears as if this indictment may be repeated in our own day. Today, the church is on the brink of a major crisis as many young people are rejecting it as irrelevant, boring and superficial.
The church is always only one generation away from extinction. If Satan can win the soul of just one generation, then he wins the souls of all that follow. The role of youth ministry in a local church is therefore one of the most vital aspects of that church’s existence, and certainly the key to its continued survival. With this in mind, there are a number of critical areas in which churches appear to be failing the generation of young people at the beginning of a new millennium. These can be characterised by five serious misconceptions regarding the role of youth ministry in the local church:
“The youth are the church of tomorrow”
It may be true that by the year 2040, today’s youth will be the older leaders in the church, and today’s church leaders will be no more, but this does not mean that the youth have no place in today’s church. In fact, the history of evangelicalism is the history of ministry to young people and ministry by young people. The Bible itself is filled with young people doing ministry: Joshua (probably no older than 18, selected as Moses’ second in command as Israel left Egypt)), David (age 13 when anointed king by Samuel), Jeremiah (seemingly called from birth, probably started prophesying at age 6), Mary (“betrothed” but not yet married, therefore probably about 13 years old), the disciples (most likely that most of them were mid-teens when called by Jesus) and Timothy (likely in his teens when given Ephesian church to lead and pastor) are but a few examples. The youth are not the church of tomorrow – they are the church of today.
The Church needs young people to be the church today, as they are the only generation naturally equipped to survive and thrive in the postmodern world of ongoing, incremental change. If you need to program the VCR in your home, you don’t call the oldest, most “experienced” person, do you? Young people can assist the church through the muddy waters of change, as we transition from a society based on scientific modernism, through the transition of postmodern skepticism, to whatever will be on the other side.
“Young people should learn to serve by getting involved in behind-the-scenes ministries”
In many churches, young people are considered “involved” in the life of the “main” church simply because they have been allocated a variety of “servant” tasks. The reason for all the inverted commas in the last sentence is because of the difficulty of working with different definitions of concepts. The Bible is very clear that every gift and every position within a church is one of servanthood – even leadership, if Biblically correct, is servant-leadership. However, when older people within a church want to get young people involved, they often feel that young people must “learn to serve”, and therefore allocate them tasks that may include serving tea, cleaning the church, door steward duty, car park attendants, ushers and other such ministries.
Although these tasks are absolutely vital, and most definitely should be done by people gifted with (amongst other gifts) hospitality, administration and helps, it is an insult both to young people, and to those adults who find their ministry in these areas of the church, to call these the only areas where young people can “learn to serve”. Young people should be encouraged to find their God-given gifts, develop them and then should be given opportunities to use these gifts, whatever the gifts may be.
“Young people are too young to effectively minister to adults”
Although it is unlikely that anyone would ever say this out loud, the actions of most churches speak loudly. Young people do not regularly minister to adults, either at adult small groups or in church services. If it is true that our spiritual ability comes not by might, nor power, but by God’s empowering Spirit, and if it is true that it is the Holy Spirit who gives gifts, then age should not be a factor when it comes to utilizing one’s gifts. When young people become Christians they do not get a “Junior Holy Spirit”. They do not get “spiritual gifts lite”. They get the full power of the Holy Spirit, and should be given ministry opportunities on this basis. Do our churches even know what gifts the young people have – let alone giving them opportunities to use these gifts?
“The youth group is a good training ground for leaders”
This is the most common and also most dangerous of the misconceptions, as inexperienced and naïve leaders are let loose on our youth. Adults are a lot more forgiving than teenagers. Adults are also a lot more discerning than young people, and have the ability to distinguish between good and bad ministry. It seems strange then that we persist with using the youth ministry as a training ground. We should use adult ministry as a training ground, and only the very best leaders should be allowed to lead in the youth ministry. I personally believe that allowing untrained, spiritually immature people loose in youth ministry is one of the key reasons that youth ministry is failing in our churches.
“There are more important things than youth ministry on which to spend our money” (“and, besides, they don’t give tithes to the church anyway”)
Most youth ministries’ biggest complaints is the lack of finances, which shows the level of commitment the church actually gives to it. Do a snap survey in your church, and ask people to indicate who made an initial commitment to Christ before the age of 18. If your church fits worldwide averages, you will find over 75% of all Christians made some form of commitment to Christ before age 18. If this is generally true, and if the role of the church is reach the world with the Gospel, then it makes sense to concentrate our energies where it will be most effective. At least 75% of the church’s budget, 75% of time and 75% of facilities and equipment should therefore be focussed on, reaching children and teens.
It’s time that we, as the adults in the church, stop viewing the young people as a threat, and start acting like the grown ups we’re supposed to be. We need to set the vision and direction of our churches – and these must be focussed on our young people. Church was never meant to be a comfortable place to see out mid-life or retirement. Church is meant to be a place where the family of God can be involved in passing on the Truth from one generation to the next. Whatever it takes!!