Youth Ministry As Ministry

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Youth Cartel Summit conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This was my first time in Nashville, so it was a fun experience just for that! Besides being in a fun city, the conference had a lot going for it. It was a creative format that allowed for deeper conversations. Rather than offering a bunch of seminars with "big stage" lectures dispersed throughout, Summit offered sessions featuring five or six short presentations (like mini-lectures) followed by a "digging deeper" session in which you were able to choose which speaker you wanted to engage more fully in a smaller group. You got a gist of what each speaker wanted to offer and then you got to pick one offering with which you wanted to get deeper. It was a really nice format with some really great speakers!

I've been to a lot of youth ministry conferences and seminars about youth ministry. And after this one, I've been reflecting on how we in the youth ministry world tend to talk about youth ministry. I'm not implicating the Youth Cartel in anything here. It's just a reality in youth ministry that I noticed again this weekend. We define youth ministry in so many different terms. If I were to survey the people at Summit, Youth Specialties, or the Princeton Forum, for example, and asked them to fill in the blank: "youth ministry is ________" I'd get a plurality of responses. We define youth ministry according to "mission," "formation," "discipleship," "teaching," "growth," even "development"... and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with all of these things. Most of the terms we use to describe and define youth ministry are appropriate, they're at least an important part of youth ministry... but why don't we think to define youth ministry according to the very word by which we refer to the practice--"ministry"? Why do we feel we have to find other words when youth ministry is, in fact, ministry

We define our youth ministries according to what we want to get out of them, according to the "telos", the place we want to lead the kids in our care. But if youth ministry is indeed ministry, then why isn't it defined as ministering to youth, meeting them where they are, loving them as they are, and leading them from there (if leading is still to be appropriate)? Why is youth ministry, in academic institutions such as Princeton Theological Seminary, designated under the heading "Education and Formation" instead of "Pastoral Care"?

I think what has happened is youth workers and leading thinkers in the world of youth ministry have reacted against the archaic ethos of youth ministry as "ministering to youth" as passive recipients of Christian ministry. Appropriately, they've advocated for youth as active members of the church and agents of Christian ministry (they're right to do this!). They wanted youth ministry not just to be the church's ministry to the youth and for the youth, but ministry of the youth. Appropriately, they wanted youth to see youth ministry as their ministry in and as the church. The problem, however, is that the pendulum has swung too far. By putting the ministry of the youth at the fore, the ministry to the youth has suffered and ministry's demands and claims upon the lives of young people have become normative.

When the church's ministry to the youth puts the ministry of the youth--the expectation that youth will be formed into mature Christian adults or active agents of Christian ministry--before itself in such a strong way, then it tends to its own destruction. Let me say it another way: when ministry is so fundamentally about forming and "discipling" (whatever people mean by that term), then it no longer has a reason to apply to those who are not being formed, who will not conform themselves to the patterns of Christian ministry, or to those standards by which the church measures the success of its "mission." We must not forget that youth ministry is still ministry!--ministry to and not just of  the youth.

If we allow youth ministry to be ministry, then we are free to measure our success not by the output (the telos) but by the input (my friends Justin Forbes and Marcus Hong both helped me articulate it in this way). The "fruit of the Spirit" become just that--fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our labor. We can measure the success of our ministry not by the fruit we produce, but by the fruit the Spirit produces in us when we love kids, share their joy, nurture their peace, are patient with them (even if they don't want to do what think they should do), show them kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If ministry to the youth is normative, then there is "no law against these things" (Gal. 5:22-23). We are free to minister to the kids in our care and trust God that formation and development will emerge therefrom.