Yesterday I noticed the UCC shared on their Facebook a link to a Red Letter Christians article titled, "Should Churches Hire Youth Pastors?" by Tony Campolo. One friend of mine commented that the the post was mostly just "click bait"--with little substance but a provocative title. And apparently I took the bait. Given the fact that I will likely be looking for youth ministry jobs in the not-too-distant future, of course the title caught my attention (plus, I was interested because the UCC was posting something about youth ministry). But I thought the article was a lot more than just click bait.
Of course Campolo knows and understands the importance of youth ministry. I'm sure he'd have no problem encouraging churches to invest in their youth ministries and hire youth pastors (how many years has he been a guest speaker at Youth Specialties?). But he's right to raise the question, if we're gonna hire pastors for a specific age group, why not hire pastors to care for the people that make up such a large portion of the congregation? Does not the pastoral care of the elderly constitute a hired staff position as much or more than pastoral care for kids? But there's the real question... and the real reason I'm interested in this article... do we actually even associate youth ministry with pastoral care?
By comparing the need for pastoral care for the elderly with the pastoral care for teenagers, Campolo (consciously or not) forces us to think of youth ministry primarily as pastoral care. This chafes, I believe, for many youth workers and pastors who prioritize youth ministry in churches. I think many who took the bait and clicked on this article (like I did) probably had the knee-jerk reaction of, "well, we need to reach the next generation to keep the church alive...." or, "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors!" These are not bad reactions. But what's the fundamental presupposition behind them? Why prioritize youth ministry over care for the elderly? Is it about pastoral care or growing the church? Or, to put it more pointedly... do we care more about self preservation than meeting the spiritual needs of the people in our congregations?
Youth ministry is still quite steeped in its history as a "technology" for the church (Andrew Root has used this terminology). We employ youth ministry to help solve the church's problems. The church is dying, so we revive it by getting more kids to come (and we get more kids to come by making it flashy and "relevant"). Young adults are leaving the church, so we turn to youth ministry to solve the problem. So youth ministry becomes more about growth and behavior than it does about actually engaging in the lives of the kids who are there. It becomes more about evangelism for the sake of preservation than sharing in the lives of young people as the location of divine and human encounter. With youth ministry as a technology (i.e., "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors"), pastoral care takes a back-seat to "reaching the next generation" and "keeping the church alive."
Of course I think we need to hire youth pastors in churches! I might run into some problems in the future if we stopped hiring youth pastors. But I think that youth ministry needs to learn something from its' parent discipline, pastoral care. As my teacher, Dr. Kenda Dean has said, youth ministry is still ministry. We need youth ministries that prioritize not just reaching the next generation or advancing kids to the next level of spiritual growth, but truly caring for the kids inside their walls--wherever they are on life's journey, with all their doubts and frustrations, even when they're not going to convert or "grow" spiritually. The pastoral care of youth, however few or many there may be, needs to get back in the front seat of youth ministry.