When I was a teenager, I was very involved in my (Methodist) youth group. It was a wonderful time in my spiritual life, and I am very thankful for all the things I learned during that time. I think there are many Christian adults today who can look back at their time in high school youth group as a time of spiritual growth and advancement. Yet I have to admit that I have for a long time had an uneasy feeling about the culture of youth ministry within the church.
My concerns revolve around two common aspects of many youth groups: the lack of parental involvement and the “consumer” mentality of many of these groups. The fault for the first problem often does not lie with the youth ministers, but with the parents, who consider the parish’s youth group a means to “outsource” their duties to raise their kids Catholic. I’ve known many youth ministers who practically beg parents to get involved to no avail.
But the origin of the other problem – the “consumer” mentality of youth ministry – I think falls more closely to the nature of modern youth ministry itself. I recently ran across an article (entitled “I think I’m doing youth ministry all wrong“) by Tim Schmoyer, a youth minister who articulates my concerns quite nicely (emphasis added):
Despite knowing otherwise in my head, the way I actually lead my church’s youth ministry is mostly from the mentality that our youth ministry is a program or service we provide to families. It’s almost like I’m unintentionally feeding the consumeristic perspective by sometimes using language like, “We offer small groups…” and, “We provide connection points for your teens…” Since when was ministry ever supposed to be about what a paid staff member and a couple adult volunteers are expected to spiritually provide for teens and families?
Youth ministry should not be about how the church can serve the youth or even how we can provide programs that help them grow spiritually. That’s the parents’ responsibility. In fact, I don’t think youth ministry should even accidentally enable parents to outsource their God-given responsibility to us, something I know my ministry is all too guilty of. Support parents, yes, but enable them to outsource? No.
The Greek word for “church” is literally “ekklesia,” a community of believers who are “called out” to serve and edify each other and the people around them.
Instead of fueling the consumerism mentality of what a church “offers” or “provides” and which church in town does it best, youth ministry should probably be about helping teens use their God-given gifts to serve the body. It should teach families that youth ministry isn’t just about what the church does for them, but that they are “called out” to think beyond themselves with a servant’s heart. I bet teen church drop-outs would decrease if they actually served as a valuable and essential part of the local body of Christ.
Note the first section I highlighted: it is the parents’ responsibility to help their children grow spiritually. This cannot be out-sourced. A youth program’s purpose is to simply assist the parents in this task. But it is not the job of the youth program to “sell church” to teenagers. It is to give teens an outlet for practicing the faith that has already been imparted by the parents to them.
I recognize of course that in the real world many, many parents are not doing this job, and many youth ministers are heroically trying to fill that gap as best they can. But no matter what, the focus of youth ministry should be less about making the Church conform to the desires of teenagers as it is making teenagers conform to the demands of the Church.