This whole week I’ll be writing on cuss words in ministry, not saying dirty words, but things that I find taboo and try to avoid because their weight and implications are some I want to avoid in the work of making disciples. Today’s cuss word comes from a lengthy coffee conversation with another student pastor in our area as we dialogued about ministry philosophy, college basketball, and our seminary experiences. That word is “Youth Group,” which can trace its origins to the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s which saw the country shift from agrarian to a more urban and industrialized society. Young people were no longer expected to work the farm along with the family, and so came the development of young people’s societies, which transferred over to the churches as they sought to answer the question “What are we going to do with this new population demographic?” Up to that point there was childhood and adulthood, and with the Industrial Revolution came the emergence of a third category, adolescence. With that came the growth of the public high school and compulsory education, creating an entire subculture. I submit the organization of young people’s groups was and still is a good thing, it’s an avenue for engaging for the Gospel, accountability, growth, and fellowship. I just think our terminology needs to change.
First the term youth, how many times this week have you used that in your normal conversation, except about the group of teenagers at your church? I’m a “youth” pastor and I can count on one hand maybe how many times I used it in a week. It’s a term that can mean any person under 18, and I’ve had many people come up to me asking about “youth” activities when they actually mean our church’s preschool/elementary ministry. Mild frustration, but one nonetheless. I submit the term I use more often, to reflect who they are and what they’re doing – student. That implies a temporary state that will end with graduation, removes some of the baggage from the previous term, and is more reflective of their primary focus at that point and a context for ministry. They’re learners, and so we apply that to our student ministry with active learning through teaching, fellowship, small groups, missions, etc.
Here are some of the reasons I put youth group as a cuss word in ministry:
1) It’s Exclusive – In any group there are those within and those without. That’s the point of Seth Godin’s book Tribes that talks about the buzz behind any movement is the idea that there are those within that movement and those without it (great examples: Apple, Starbucks, Premium Airline Packages). The key is to always make sure there is a definite distinction of those who are in and who are out, creating multiple levels of deviance within even an industry. The problem with that for churches and for student ministries is that the “youth group” mindset is often a closed-group mindset. You’re either in the group or you’re not, and a natural result of that is the building of walls to keep “them” out. It can create an isolationist mentality where all of life is lived in the “youth group,” and it makes the group itself the focus. What we’re about is connecting students to Jesus, so we work to tear down cliques and in-groups, to build a welcome environment, and to make everything we do about Jesus, not our “youth group.” Do I want to see a strong student ministry? Absolutely, but not at the cost of becoming isolated or a “tribe.” I’ll save that for my Apple obsession, which you wouldn’t get if you’re reading this on a Windows paperweight.
2) It Doesn’t Reflect the Mission – My personal conviction is that a student ministry should be about making disciples and equipping students to be effective, mature, serving adults within the context of the local church. That starts by reaching the lost, sharing the Gospel, teaching the Bible, giving opportunities to serve, engaging in missions, building disciples, discovering spiritual gifts and exercising them, and culminating in a graduation where a student goes from a 7th grader to a high school graduate able to serve the Bride as an adult. So everything we do is geared towards that, because I want to operate with the end in mind (As an example, when I plan out goals I always start at least 3 years out and work backwards on how we can achieve those 3 year goals). In a youth group, the goal is to get them there and be a part of a group. Which is great, but that’s something that can be done around the Humane Society or any of the 100 clubs offered through the school.
Again, I’ll go back to the term “student ministry” as a better term because that more accurately conveys what we’re doing. We are a ministry of the church, not outside it, not alongside it, not above or below, but of. So I encourage our students to get involved in other areas of the church, to serve in those ministries and strengthen them. My long range goal is to have some of our guys who are spiritually mature and who God is clearly working through to serve as understudy deacons and learning to do hospital visits and what goes into ministry work. I see our ministry as one of many to build a stronger Church, if students stay at their current one or if they’re called away to be mature Christ-following serving disciples in another church.
Tomorrow’s cuss word: “I think we should…”