While there are a lot of criticisms regarding youth ministry I feel we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Youth Ministry is still needed today. Before I unpack the reasons why youth ministry is needed all me to explain that youth ministry has always existed; though, not in the same form as we practice today.
History:Two thousand years ago, Jewish children had a clear path to adulthood that included youth ministry. The local synagogue would hire a rabbi whose primary role was educating children. Starting at age 4 or 5 (Beth Sefer) children would learn, read, write, and memorize the Torah. At age 10, having memorized the Torah, children would either spend more time at home learning the family trade or move towards the path of the rabbi. Either path led to an eventual acknowledgment of adulthood at age 30 for men. Culture considered the time in between the period in preparation for adulthood, and the synagogue was invested in that stage of life.
It's doubtful that ancient rabbis ate live fish to encourage their students. It's possible, though unlikely, that they stuffed as many honey-coated wafers in their mouths as possible to prove their rabbinic mastery. What seems clear is that youth ministry existed long before Young Life. Understanding this paradigm adds a bit of depth to the popular thinking that parents should be the only (not primary) spiritual directors for children. +
Into the Present
Present-day youth ministry hardly resembles its ancient roots. Much of the discipleship we see modeled by Jesus in the Bible has been forsaken in the modern church. Consumeristic, attractional models of the church have flourished in Western culture. Youth ministry is also at least partly responsible for the most biblically illiterate, unchurched generation of Americans. Fewer and fewer young adults return to the church after they leave home. Caught in that paradigm, very few of us would belabor the end of youth ministry as we know it.
Just as it was in Jesus' day, young adults (and their parents) need help. The church would be suicidal to abandon a generation based on the failing, outdated model of youth ministry. I see several necessities for youth ministry in the church today.
1. Youth ministry exists because it is needed.
The needs of adolescents are not contested by many of the best minds in the church and psychology. Robert Epstein in Teen 2.0 makes a strong case for cultivating this generation. “Young people should be extended full adult rights and responsibilities in each of a number of different areas as soon as they can demonstrate appropriate competence in each area.” The church, if it wants spiritual depth, must reach out to teenagers and help them mature in their faith.
In addition, teenagers have many of the same spiritual needs as adults. These include the need to know Christ personally by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), to grow in understanding of God's truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17), to serve others, to enjoy friendships with other believers (Acts 2:42), and to learn how to share their faith with others.
The overall goal of youth ministry should resemble that of the church—a focus on honoring God through making disciples, or fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and living out the Great Commandment, loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:37-40).
Another biblical principle relevant to youth ministry can be found in 1 Corinthians 12. In this chapter, Paul compares believers in the church to different parts of a human body. Every part is important, and there is no part that is more important than another part. When teenagers are cared for and given ministry opportunities in the local church, they can grow as "part of the body" and feel like an essential part of God's work in the local church.
Finally, 1 Timothy 5 offers instructions for various groups of people in the local church. Verses 1-2 state, "Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity." Church leaders are to treat younger men as brothers and younger women as sisters. The youth of our church are our family members. They are not just another ministry, but are an essential part of our church family.
2. What worked in the past can work today.
Jesus modeled one of the best practices for the church. His discipleship did not depend on the latest book, the newest game, or the best icebreaker. Instead, his model relied on the spiritual health of the leader, and his willingness to spend time investing himself, his love, and his truth in them.
For teenagers, mentoring can also play a large role in this process. The apostle Paul provided and taught this type of training with Timothy: "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2). Youth Pastors must recommit themselves to the lost art of discipleship. We must open up our lives (marriage, parenting, etc) to teenagers and tell them follow me as I follow Christ. Discipleship should take place in life on life interaction, not just within the four walls of a church on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights but rather out in the community as youth ministers come alongside teenagers and train them to walk with the Lord. Every teenager who attends the youth department is allowed unlimited access to Julia and I to ask questions, come by our house and hang out and do life with us.
3. Youth Ministry can reach teens in a city which the church can not reach.
Many teens don’t go to church because it’s unhealthy. To quote one teenager I recently talked with, "I don't go to church because everyone there is full of bs." Youth ministry gives us a chance to reach teens in our city and lead them to Christ. Youth Ministry provides an avenue for youth ministers to contextualize the Gospel in a way and through a form which teenagers can understand.
4. Youth Ministry provides a safe environment for teens to show up and be themselves.
As a youth minister one of my commitments is to seek to foster an open youth group where teenagers have a safe place to attend, express their feelings, share their questions and be themselves. We have a motto in CREW which is (the youth room is like Vegas. What happens there stays there). Teenagers have to deal with a lot more today than when I was a teenager and a youth ministry department creates a safe environment where teens can share without the judgmental eyes of mom and dad or the rest of the churches. Teenagers need mentors whom they can confide in and ask questions. In a perfect world those mentors would be there parents; however, we do not live in a perfect; therefore, youth ministry provides a safe environment for teens to show up and be themselves
In conclusion, youth ministry has fallen on hard times. Youth pastors and youth departments do have to make changes; however, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water and get rid of youth ministry all together. Rather youth ministry is needed because it worked in the past and can work today, it reaches teens in a city which the church is not reaching, and it provides a safe environment for teens to show up and be themselves.