“Healthy Youth Ministries” != Healthy Christian Youth

Any good business or leadership resource will tell you that to achieve your goals you must have your objectives clearly in view. It seems odd, then, that so many business and leadership gurus seem to fail to ask and answer the fundamental questions when they apply their gimmicks to the Church.

This can be clearly seen in just the title of a recent blog post, “What’s a healthy youth ministry?” (emphasis added).

In this title, we see the clear motivations and concerns of the “Church as Business” crowd.  An efficient system called a “ministry” that is intentional about carrying out a defined system or procedure.  The metrics by which these “best practices” will be measured is that it creates a group that is “active doing things with a purpose.”  Specifically, “push[ing] kids deeper, encourag[ing] them to live out their faith in their schools, and challeng[ing] them to live out the great commission.”

According to one author, approvingly quoted in the referenced article, “When youth ministries are healthy, they have retained a balance among relational dynamics, theological thinking, and a bent for action – which in turn shapes a system of discipleship.”

Look carefully at these descriptions and consider the goals and objectives.  “Youth ministries” are “healthy” when they implement a “system of discipleship” that “push[es],” “encourage[s],” and “challenge[s]” by “balanc[ing]” “relational dynamics,” “theological thinking,” and “a bent for action.”

Now, ask yourself, what is the focus of these descriptions?

More importantly, what’s missing from these descriptions of “healthy youth ministries?”

How about a description of a healthy Christian youth?

To read descriptions such as these, one would be led to think that a healthy Christian youth is one who is “pushed,” “encouraged,” and “challenged.”  Why else would a “healthy youth ministry” be one where the “minister” pushes, encourages, and challenges while balancing “relational dynamics, theological thinking, and a bent for action?”   Is that really what makes for a “youth ministry?” Is that what makes it “healthy?”

Now, I sincerely doubt that anyone involved with youth work would agree that this is the case.  I think I can safely say that everyone agrees that there’s something fundamental to the whole concept of “healthy youth ministry” that’s missing from this description.  But to listen to and read many of the books an articles on “youth ministry,” you’d never see it or find it except in the section that laments the fact that even though we seem to be following the prescribed processes, we are not achieving the result of life-long disciples that Jesus desires.

But that is the whole point!  These so-called “leaders” who head up “movements” and create networks that others are supposed to follow and emulate fail even to follow the most basic fundamentals of clearly identifying and articulating the objectives they are trying to reach.  For them, it’s all about being out and ahead, leading and managing rather than loving and serving according to Christ’s commands.

It is this desire to lead and manage that results in all the pushing and encouraging and challenging and balancing the dynamics.  What is completely overlooked is a careful consideration of the question, “what is a healthy Christian youth?”  (That question is answered in this post.)

It is precisely this mechanistic, process oriented thinking that creates “ministries” in order to manage and implement programs and processes that has resulted in the utter failure of “youth ministry” in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The ultimate result has been the objectification of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  By this approach, we have created hierarchies among those who are our equals in Christ.  In the grand tradition of the industrial revolution, we have treated these precious lambs as nothing more than raw meat to be processed and refined.

Long before Jane, Jose, John, and Jaylen disengaged from the church, their brothers and sisters in Christ disengaged from them.  Long before they decided that they wanted nothing to do with the “organized church” they were shown that the “organized church” was no place for them.

In many cases, these precious children of our heavenly father were excluded from the gathering of God’s family around His Word and gifts and they were relegated to church basements and special locations.

We have ignored God’s Word which clearly teaches, “Faith comes by hearing.”  Based solely on their outward appearance and their physical and mental immaturity, we frequently segregated them or even removed from the presence of Christ and dispensed with them as members of His Body.  Instead of allowing them to receive the Holy Spirit to work faith in them through the preaching of the Word, we gave them coloring books and activities to keep their hands busy without any regard for their soul.

In spite of the fact that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them,” we have failed for decades to see the younger members of our congregations through the eyes of Jesus as those redeemed by Him and made members of His body through the washing of regeneration and rebirth of Holy Baptism.  We have refused to accept them as beloved lambs who need to receive the forgiveness of sins won by Christ.  And, we have rejected them as neighbors to be loved and cherished and served with the precious Gospel and taught treasure everything the Lord commanded.

Instead, we have told them that they are the “future” church.  And rather than pour into them the mercy and grace of God in Christ through Word and Sacrament, teaching them of the love of God who came to redeem them, we have hired “youth ministers” who would “process” the raw youth material into productive pious members of our churchy organization while at the same time using them as a source of free labor to be “pushed,” “encouraged,” and “challenged” with the various tasks we least felt like doing ourselves.

None of this was intentional, of course.  We did what we did with the best of intentions.  We followed the “best practices” of the day in implementing “systems of discipleship” to “push,” “encourage,” and “challenge” them to become the church that we wanted them to become.  But we did so forgetting they are among us because as baptized believers, they are already the Church who hears the voice of her shepherd and receives the mercy and grace of their Lord and Savior in Word and Sacrament.

Dear friends, we have much to repent of.  We have much for which to beg the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy for treating His precious lambs in this way.  And we must fervently pray in spite of our grave failures, our dear brothers and sisters in Christ who have been so grievously disrespected and driven away by our pride and arrogance toward them would not harden their hearts against Christ and His love for them.

Pastor Matthew Dent

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