I've been in youth ministry for 15 years (10 of that being full time. Does that make me a veteran?) I've done it the way it's always been done...whatever that really means. I've seen youth ministers/ministries come and go in my community. I've seen tons of "Christian" teens. So as I look over the past 10 or so years I have to ask myself. Is youth ministry really that effective? I know some will disagree with me, but traditional youth ministry really focuses on keeping teens active and out of trouble. Yes, it is true that one of the distinctions between youth ministry and any other youth organization is the teaching of scripture, but I think that more energy is put into the planning of activities and keeping teens entertained then real discipleship and teaching of Scripture. A youth ministry that focuses solely on discipleship and Scripture is a youth ministry that will never see many teens. On the flip side, it may see more mature teens then even youth ministries that have hundreds of teens.
Am I sounding pessimistic? You bet. I am irritated at the attitude that teens and parents have towards youth ministry. My first full time youth ministry position in Idaho ended in disaster. The problem was I took my job way too serious. I wanted to challenge teens to be godly men and women. The parents wanted a youth activities director. Honestly, I wouldn't really even see this as a problem if it wasn't for the fact that parents are not discipling their children.
As I understand it, youth ministry was started as a way to reach out to non-Christian teens. Somewhere along the line things were changed. Yes, many youth ministries attract non-Christian teens because of the activities that they offer, but a lot of youth ministries have become a social organization for teens of church families. Many families get upset when there are no activities for their teen, and yet there is the misunderstanding that the responsibility of teaching teens about Christ lies solely with the youth ministry of a church. Do people see the double standard that has been created?
Some might ask "Well can't you do both? Can't you have fun activities for my child and teach them about Christ?" The answer is "Yes, as long as you realize that the amount of time you are asking me to put into youth ministry goes well beyond the normal 40 hour a week job, and please don't blame me when youth activities and/or Bible studies are lacking. I will try to be your superman, but I can't guarantee anything!!"
Why does youth ministry exist today? Better yet, what should a youth ministry look like today? I have given a lot of thought to this. I believe that traditional youth ministry is not effective. Statistics say that 75% of churched teens will quit going to church after they graduate from high school (Essential Church. Rainer and Rainer). That statistic says a lot about youth ministry today, but honestly it shouldn't be the sole responsibility of the youth ministry to educate and disciple a teen. It should be the parent's responsibility. Unfortunately a shift in mentality has occurred that parallels the attitude towards public school. Just as people expect the public school to be the sole educator of their children so it is with youth ministry when it comes to spiritual training. If parents were doing their job in discipling their teens then the sole responsibility of youth ministry could be seen as developing some type of teen social club replete with fun activities and occasional inspirational events. Unfortunately this is not the case.
The truth is very few parents are discipling their teens. So the church, knowing that discipleship is important, has to respond in some way. Problem is, the response needs to meet the approval of the parents who hold misconceptions. But a response is need nonetheless. So what's the answer? One answer might be to hire two people to do the job of youth ministry. One person who focuses on the spiritual development of teenagers and the other who focuses on the more social aspects of youth ministry. If a church has the money this could be a realistic solution. Unfortunately most churches don't have that type of money.
So here is my idea. I'm not saying that there are no other solutions out there, but I am suggesting one that might work. In fact, it is exactly what I am trying to do here at KCC. We need to come alongside parents and help them disciple their teens by providing discipleship opportunities. What does this look like? I am not exactly sure, but one way we are trying to accomplish this is to take one of our Wednesday night evenings and open it up to parents. The objective is to teach a lesson that is relative to both parents and their teens and then give them opportunity to dialogue. The desired result is for teens and parents to begin working with one another and helping one another grow in their relationship with and likeness of Christ.
It also involves reeducating Christian parents concerning their primary role as a parent. Their primary role is discipleship. Parents have got to see that it is unfair of them to expect the church to do this. In fact, they have to see that the time they have with their children is much greater then the time their children have with the church. Parents have more influence over their children then anyone or anything else.
Now I understand that there are those teens whose parents are not Christian. In this case it is our responsibility to provide mentors for them. Overall, I believe the priority of youth ministry is to help parents become effective mentors. This is not easy though. There will be opposition to such a radical concept. Even so, the church needs to do what is right and best for its members. Traditional youth ministry does not provide this.