Missional Youth Ministry: Beyond the Event

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I’d like to start this post by saying looking at the history of youth ministry isn’t something I actually want to do, and this is something a 500-word essay couldn’t possibly capture. But, a thought-provoking consideration is fair. 

As youth ministry began to emerge strongly in the 60’s & 70’s, events were the goal. Whether the intention was prevention from coercion to a threatening secular environment or a sincere and organic approach to building community is something we won’t ever know, but it seemed to be working. So youth workers refined events, making them bigger, providing more food, and creating more flash. The bar rose at astronomical speeds, and students flooded the ever artsy youth room. Press fast forward to the early 2000’s and watch the adverse happen — the bar couldn’t possibly get any higher and the youth couldn’t possibly leave any faster, or so we thought. 

We won’t mention the current statistics of youth leaving the church. It’s Christmas season for goodness sake.

This leaves youth pastors at a division in the road: start approaching it differently or quit altogether. Divided the Movie will do the latter for you, I’ll attempt the former.

Youth ministry is not only changing internally, but those internal changes are affecting the church structures surrounding it. Looking at the past and seeing something which used to work but is no longer working can be a challenge, but it's one we rise up to meet. To help you understand better what our group is doing, a bit of context may help. 

Our group gathers together twice a week with a different intention at each gathering. The first gathering of the week is a Bible study — the place to openly wrestle with what God is doing, how He is doing it, and to listen to what God would like us to do next. The second gathering of the week is engagement with what we’ve been talking about in Bible study and attempting to both embody those teachings and wrestle practically with their implication for our lives. The results have been astonishing. Students feel permitted to ask what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and the purpose behind doing “events.” These teaching moments are immeasurable to our ministry. 

As a result, our youth group is reforming what it means to have or hold an event. Who is at this event? Is it just youth, or can parents, elderly, children come to our events? How, then, can we get parents, elderly, and children to participate in community with adolescents? Do we have to meet at the church, or is there greater need elsewhere? Are we being helpful? Who is it that actually needs our help? What missions can our youth be participating in? 

The beauty of youth ministry having mostly been a para-ministry of the church (healthy or not) is that there has always been permissible flexibility and creativity inherent in its structure. Seeing and embracing this in my current position has allowed me room to rethink what it means about how our group talks about and engages the Bible, what types of things we ought to do as a group, and where our group meets.

Maybe youth ministry history isn’t painted with the most colorful brush, but I think our history shows two clear needs — students crave for intention and want to belong to a community. As youth pastors, I see a great many leaders moving beyond this undeniable truth, beyond the event, and into a deeply thoughtful and engaging form of what it means to be a Christian community in today’s world.

  • Share the ways in which your group has moved beyond the event.
  • What are the implications of this form of ministry for the greater congregational community?
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