In the 1960s and 1970s, the youth pastor position was THE most sought-after career job by local churches. The success of para-church youth ministries, in reaching and discipling the teenage culture, finally forced the church to see their mistake in ignoring this new phenomenon called “teenagers” and thus churches and denominations jumped on the bandwagon of reaching this young generation. And, wow… it worked!
Consider that in 1965 there were NO conservative evangelical schools offering a full degree in youth ministry to TODAY when we have more than 250 Christian institutions that offer a BA, MA, MDiv., DMin., and even a Ph.D. in youth or youth and family ministry. Regrettably, today (21st century) in the U.S., the position of a full-time theologically trained youth pastor is being criticized and maligned as allegedly being “past its day” and “obsolete.” The fact is this is NOT true! On the contrary, I would suggest what SHOULD be “past its day” and “obsolete” is much of today’s BAD pastor-led local church youth ministry.
Namely, that being done by many current-day “youth pastors” who are; liberal/progressive theologically, social-justice driven, entertainment-oriented, Biblically anemic, evangelism/discipleship starved, politically correct, gender/sexual identity issue confused, and who lower the bar for ministry involvement by youth and also buy into the “everything small” and “less is better” mentality. My experience is that many evangelical parents of teens today are literally CRYING about the fact that their children are not being given the same wonderful opportunities they themselves had while participating in a theologically solid, family-balanced, and aggressively evangelistic youth ministry led by a youth pastor who raised rather than lowered the “bar” of challenge and expectations for the youth. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many good youth pastors “out there” doing great work, but I am afraid their “kind” is sadly dwindling in numbers.
To be relevant, theology must be integrated into culture. While a careful examination of the implications of the theology of youth is beyond the scope of this paper, some suggestions are in order.
First, the faith community should begin to view adolescents in a more adult capacity. Culturally and legally, adolescents are minors and the church bears a greater responsibility for them than those of the legal age of majority. The church must anticipate risks and plan for a safe environment. Even so, the faith community should begin to view adolescents differently. Greater expectations for participation and leadership will help adolescents to overcome the cultural stigma of being a grown adult with no adult authority or responsibility. Placing adolescents in a youth ministry ghetto with no interaction with other adults is unlikely to help them develop.
The faith community must view adolescents as part of a family unit and should include opportunities for families to worship, recreate, and study together. However, this must not preclude young adults from participating in the broader faith community, engaging with their peers, or investing in younger members of the congregation. Such experiences are both culturally important and helpful in developing them as adults of faith.
The faith community must provide youth with significant role models to aid them in gaining experience as adults. It should not be surprising that research has indicated that youth who have heart connections with at least five godly adults have the best opportunity to develop a mature faith. Youth group leaders can certainly serve as these role models, but churches must be sure they are selecting youth leaders who are good examples of passionate Christian adulthood, rather than merely individuals who enjoy playing with kids.
The faith community needs to address the challenge posed to adolescents and young adults by youthful folly. In a culture in which sexual promiscuity is expected, youth need help understanding the dangers of youthful folly. The faith community needs to offer real-life strategies for fleeing inappropriate passions—whether they relate to money, anger, sexuality, or pointless arguments. We need to help youth to pursue peace, purity, and life.
Finally, the faith community must call youth to passionate faith. The church must not be content with church attendance or simplistic answers. The faith community must raise the level of expectation of youth to be true examples of passionate faith.