Some question about youth ministry arises often at our church. Visiting parents ask what we have for their teenagers. Members wonder what we're doing for the "youth." By modern standards we have or do very little. No glitzy youth building for youth "worship." No services designed to package God's truth in sound bites teenagers can understand. No teen-centered atmosphere that defines our church. But, we do have a youth ministry.
There is a rampant adolescentizing force that raises adults/parents to act more like children rather than training children for adulthood. Commercials regularly depict children teaching their parents as though they're the prudent ones in the family. Companies market childish products to parents in the name of relevancy ("Thirty is the new twenty," for example. Everything is geared towards appearing and acting younger). Popular sit-com fathers are overweight dunderheads, while their children are the "wise" ones who teach him about life. Public service announcements have children urging their parents to talk to them about sex, drugs and predators. The overall message is "mature" children and teenagers are now forced to tell their parents to grow up.
This mentality has seeped into the church such that we assume the "youth" should be the church's main emphasis in all we do. There is great pressure to occupy (read: entertain) teenagers. They are "the future of the church" (I thought Jesus was) so we must do anything and everything to keep them interested. To question such an approach and being willing to take attention away from teenagers is tantamount to hating them. Therefore, I want to think aloud through some seminal thoughts, asking if we should assume "youth ministry" a biblical category. (I suppose the same could be asked about other demographic-specific ministries, i.e., children, senior adult, young marrieds. etc.)
Scripture seems to promote two categories of development: childhood and adulthood. One is a child until it's time to prepare for adulthood. In Jewish tradition, a boy or girl enters the initial stages of manhood and womanhood at thirteen and twelve, respectively (via bar and bat mitzvah). They don't become full-fledged adults per se, but the expectations were geared towards adulthood. There doesn't appear to be this formal, intermediate (teenage) stage where you are half-child, half-adult. Rather, you are a young adult learning to become a mature adult.
The expectation was that when a boy reaches (say) thirteen he gets involved with men. He didn't hang out with his 13-year-old buddies at the mall all day, texting acronyms and shuffling his ipod. He tags along with his father at the mill or in the field (where his buddies would also be!). He learns what men do and grows in his physical, emotional and spiritual abilities to assume leadership of his own family one day.
In the church, we should prepare our young adult (teenage) men and women for churchmanship (Titus 2.2-8). The young men should be involved with the older men, learning what men do to lead families and Christ's church. The young women should be likewise involved with the older women, learning what women do to serve families and Christ's church.
As it is, we keep teenagers cordoned off as though they're not mature enough to handle adult teaching. This is a cop out for two reasons. One, they're learning physics or chemistry in school so they have the capacity to process heady things. They may not be disciplined to do so, but they're equipped to do so. Two, they're subject to "adult" themes everyday, all day. The world is not waiting for them to reach a certain again before it peddles adult themes to them. They learn about sex, war, religion, etc. before they're able to drive. While the world indoctrinates our teenagers with its wicked dogma, the church gives them pizza and puppets. We pinch their cheeks rather than pierce their hearts. We chalk up their silliness to a "they're just teenagers" mentality rather than call them to maturity.
We do well to learn from our Supreme Example, Jesus, who at 12-years-old was found listening to the temple teachers (Lk 2.41-52). Our teenagers should be sitting in on adult conversations, Bible study classes, congregational prayer and church meetings. They should be learning about theology and church life. They won't be able to handle all of it, but they'll be able handle much of it. The church is not responsible to make cute churchgoers, but to make disciples. Our largest mission field is our own children/teenagers, whom we must teach to obey all that Jesus taught.
More to come.
(Teleport to Part 2 and/or Part 3).