Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Are Youth Ministries For: Pt.3-The Overhaul of Belief System

Several years ago I walked around a shopping mall with a student who was weighing the cost of whether he would walk with Christ as a disciple or go the way go the world. He had a new, non-Christian girlfriend and the question of whether or not they would sleep together loomed.

Before this experience, I would have asserted that the basic function of youth ministry is discipleship-making. That is the Great Commission and primary function of the Church, right? Nobody would argue with such a standpoint.  However, this conversation with the teenager uncovered for me that there is a deeper layer beneath discipleship-making that serves as the foundational purpose of youth ministry. I think youth ministries function to reform and overhaul the false belief system, which all students (and people) inherit as a product of original sin.

A distorted worldview constitutes the biggest obstacle in the formation of disciples. This young man called into question the validity of the scriptural position on sexual abstinence. He proceeded to offer rationale for why premarital sex is not immoral or harmful, based on his thinking. In the midst of this was an absence of the idea that God had his best interest in mind while constructing His Law.

This rebuilding project centers on three primary areas: revelation, self, and God. Just like Adam and Eve, kids believe that authority for truth lies within the subjective, the self. They do not believe that they can trust God’s Word in the same way that Adam and Eve disregarded the warnings God issued about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moving them in a direction of understanding that truth comes through what God has revealed in His Word serves as a starting point in the rebuilding effort.

In regard to their view of self, teens naturally believe that they can handle life apart from dependent relationship with God, or that they can be “like God.” God is there for help when they need Him but generally they can handle life on their own. Helping kids understand the depth of the problem and nature of their sin, as beings desiring to live apart from God, brings them into an accurate understanding of self.

Finally and most significantly, they believe that God is not good, cannot be trusted, and is against them. The need for repeatedly showing God’s interest in their life, His goodness, His mercy, His kindness, His gentleness, and His generosity is the backbone of the reformation of the marred belief system.

Discipleship-making goes nowhere without a complete revolution in the belief system of an individual. We should aim and pray for movement from these false beliefs to a place where the heart embraces the reality that we are needy sinners living in a world ruled by a gracious and good God who longs to live in relationship with people. The mission of breaking down the false belief system and building a new foundation, rooted in God’s Truth, is the work of a youth minister. 

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry and the Director of Student Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

What Are Youth Ministries For? - Pt.2 - Biblical Foundations of Youth Ministry

I remember one particularly galling Wednesday night several years ago. The previous days had brought a familiar mix of high-effort, low-response, excitement, frustration, and discouragement, all in one package. And when I walked away from a house that night I had just one simple question: Why? Let's face it: There are times in youth ministry when you walk away from a small group study or a conversation with a family or a late-night program, and the thought occurs to you ... "Why I am doing this? Is there any good or compelling reason that I continue to pour heart and hands, effort and energy into this work of youth ministry … or am I just keeping the car running?"
A few months ago I was at a conference where I got to hear Simon Sinek give a short talk on "The Power of Why." His thesis: Why drives the how, how results in what. But this is the reverse of our normal practice where we focus on what, argue over how, and rarely figure out any justification for the whole enterprise.
So is there a clear "why" for youth ministry? Why this work with students, this endeavor within (or without) our churches to seek out and minister to teenagers? What do we find in Scripture that convinces us that this work matters and God calls us to it? 
The more I reflect on these 15 years in youth ministry, the more convinced I am that youth ministry is really just one of the manifold ministries of Christ and His church. It is highly-contextualized ministry to adolescents that can take a myriad of local forms that all look to Scripture for both guidance and goal. I make no claim to have THE biblical theology for youth ministry, but I can attempt a few words of call, challenge, and comfort that have lead me to a theology for it for our day in the church. This is my why. This is what I believe.
1. Youth ministry is mission work. The reality is that we have been called by a missionary God: A Father who sent His Son (for us!) and His Spirit (in us!) that we might be adopted into His family, united to Him as sons and daughters, renewed in His image and participating in His kingdom. I'm growing to love 1 Peter 2 more and more: "you are a chosen people, a royal priestshood" ... to what end? "So that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."  We in youth ministry get to stand at the foggy adolescent intersection of childhood and adulthood, family and friend, church and wider society. We stand and say it, sing it out: The praise of God to those who are adrift in the fog and lost in the dark.    
2. Youth ministry is corporate work. It is the church's work. The Church is the body of Christ, and where He is working, there the Church is to be found.  This family of God, this fellowship of Jesus, is sent (via the Son's command! Matt 28:18ff, John 20:21-22) on the mission of making disciples to Jesus. Though we love the church and are passionately committed to it, we point to Christ, not to it (or ourselves) - we want to see students called to a robust, sticky faith in Jesus Christ that is poured out in love for God and for people. 
3. Youth ministry is family work. God desires for these broken human families to play their part in telling his story of redemption. God has designed the family such that parents have the primary spiritual responsibility of telling the story of God's grace in creation, redemption, and restoration and then leading kids to know God, to love him heart, soul, mind, and strength with an everyday faith (Deut. 6). 
4. Youth ministry is student work. The church faces a world in which many adolescents are both far from God and in the dark - and yet none less than Jesus Himself is seeking them through the work of His Spirit.  Where possible, the church must partner with the family for the sake of declaring the gospel to the next generation (Ps. 71:16-18). But just as the church doesn't forsake the parents but must equip them to (re)discover their God-given role in the discipleship of their kids, it must not also forsake the kids and students who do yet know Christ. That means the work of training and equipping adults and students from the church to go out and share in the mission: Seek students, stand with them, speak out for them, love them, and bear witness among them to Christ at work in their midst. 
5. Youth ministry is welcoming work. The church must welcome kids/students into its communal life of worship and witness and BE the extended family of God to those who have been abandoned. If Paul can talk about the church as the place of new humanity in Christ where Jew and Gentile stand before Christ together, it damn well better be the place for adults and kids together, too.  As the church welcomes kids, it welcomes the Lord Himself (Mk. 9:33-37). Our welcome here is our worship (Rom. 15:7-9). Part of making a home for them means taking pains to teach them and make the long-term commitment to walk beside them into maturity as a whole human being renewed in Christ and ready to take up their vocation in this world. 
6. Youth ministry is desperate work. To persist in this ministry you must heed the call of God to know him for his sake, to follow him in full knowledge of the cost, and to boast only in his cross,. You must loosen your control, let go of outcomes, and lift your eyes to the risen Christ who speaks to your timid heart: "Take courage! It is I: do not be afraid… and I am with you. Always." Fix your eyes on Him, make your prayer that of Paul in Phil. 3:9-14, and devote yourself to the work of the Lord because none of it goes to waste (1 Cor. 15:58).

Andy Cornett is the Director of Student Ministries at Signal Mountain Presbyterian in Chattanooga, TN. Andy earned a Masters in Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA and has over ten years of experience in youth ministry.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ministry Across America- Manhattan


   1.     Please describe the context in which you minister (socio-economics, geography, race, etc.
New York City is, of course, a diverse community both socially and economically with hundreds of cultural pockets throughout the five boroughs. Primarily, our ministry context in Manhattan is one where students come from households where both parents are in the home, are college graduates, with many of those having some post-graduate degree. Last I checked, Redeemer was 45% Asian-American, the most prominent being Korean-American. Caucasian, Black and Hispanic make up for 55% of the church with Caucasian being the majority. We have 20 something schools represented in our youth community ranging from private to public to home-school.

2.  What are your students' biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to receiving the Gospel?
That’s a good question… Generally, I’ve found that though there are experiences acute to teen life (puberty, SAT’s, etc.) the real stumbling blocks in our context are ones that both adults and students struggle to overcome. I’m thinking specifically about the “intellectual questions” i.e., exclusivity, faith vs. science, reliability of the Bible, etc.  Of course, the biggest obstacle for someone receiving the Gospel is not intellectual but spiritual. Questions need to be answered, but hearts need to be changed, before we can receive the Gospel. That, of course, is only something God can do. For that reason, maybe I’d be careful to not distinguish too sharply stumbling blocks of teens vs. stumbling blocks of everyone else. 

3.  How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
From what I understand about 3% of New York City residents consider themselves professing, evangelical Christians so there is a lot of misunderstanding about the Church and Christianity, as a whole. I’d say that the non-believing NYC teens assume the spiritual position of their parents but with an extra bent towards universalism. Having opportunities to present the Gospel in public high schools, I’ve found students are naturally pretty skeptical about the Church as an institution and Christians as people.  However, they are open to spiritual discussions and are intrigued when they meet someone who has thought through faith and culture bit and appears to be living in light of their beliefs. The common response I’ve encountered is one of genuine surprise over discovering something so beautiful. Once you unpack Christian doctrine and demonstrate how the grace of God extends to their own story, students find the Gospel desirable.

3.) What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality? Though a typical NYC teen might respect the Ten Commandments as a religious or cultural institution (especially our Jewish friends and neighbors), they wouldn’t necessarily see its relevance to their daily lives. Though a student might not phrase it this way, they would (like their parents) believe the traditional, Biblical sex ethic was culturally conditioned and therefore, out of date.

4.) What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
If we are doing a good job, we couldn’t point to any one thing, it really has been a combination of bible teaching, worship, and consistent time with one another.  However, one discipline does set up the others. For us, everything is built upon our preaching and clearly articulating what transpires between God and mankind in Christ- and then applying the meaning of that for students whose lives are often filled with loneliness, boredom, rejection, narcissism, etc. By teaching sound doctrine in an engaging and relevant way, we are able to begin cultivating a grace-based community not just of students but of parents, pastors, lay-leaders and students.

5.) What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers? Practically speaking, let the Lord regularly encourage you with his private company through his Word. Then meet regularly with other youth workers who also spend time with Christ. Pray and vision cast together. Learn from each other, do case studies with one another, share ideas and resources, and be inspired by what God is doing in the field of labor we’re all in.  Secondly, I'd remind them of what the apostle Peter reminds us in chapter one of his first epistle, where he basically says, the only permanent thing in an otherwise temporary world is the resurrection of Christ. There are few jobs in ministry as notoriously temporary as the youth pastor role. From what I gather, many are looking beyond to a future ministry post, or biding their time while in seminary, and some are bi-vocational and simply filling the gap because the church has asked. Whatever the case may be, be encouraged that the Lord has placed you there and is at work- even within a fleeting moment. Trust God, be bold and teach them something eternal. Lastly, come to the RootedConference next fall in Atlanta!

Rev. David Plant serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What Are Youth Ministries For? - Pt.1


Hitting a moving target requires an ever-changing aim.  This is as true in youth ministry as anywhere else.  The aim of youth ministries historically has shifted as the needs in society have changed.  It’s hard for us in the 21st century to imagine a world without adolescence, a world that would not understand the concept of a full time youth pastor.  We only need to turn the clock back a few centuries to find our role in the church completely irrelevant.  Why is that?  In the early days of youth ministry, specifically the 19th century, much of the efforts toward youth were devoted to children.  Most teenagers were in the work force at that point.  Later in the century the public high school emerged and by the early 1900’s the concept of adolescence was first described by psychologist G. Stanley Hall.  So, it’s not surprising that the aim of youth ministries historically has changed.

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, I looked at the history of youth ministry from the middle of the 20th century forward to see significant developments.  In this post we will look at just a few purposes or aims of youth ministries in the past.  For a more comprehensive look at the history of youth ministry, I would suggest Mark Senter’s book “When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America.”  Meanwhile, let’s look at just five purposes that youth ministries have served or are serving at some point in history.  I am sure you can think of more.

1.     To keep kids off the streets.  Several ministries to young people emerged in history for the specific purpose of keeping kids off the streets.  The YMCA is an example of an organization that formed because rural young people were moving into the cities to find work and needed support in their new life in the city.  A gospel opportunity was seen and the YMCA became a place to gather young men and provide Bible studies, fellowship, and prayer meetings.  Many American youth ministers today would not describe this as their primary purpose for youth ministry. The typical suburban teen has more activities in their life than they have time for. Yet as I spoke with an Egyptian pastor recently I heard of a real need for the church to provide a safe haven from life on the streets.  He described to me how seven days a week loads of teens show up at his church and they feed them, help with homework, provide Bible studies, prayer, activities, etc.  What might not be viewed as a currently relevant purpose in one context may be vital in another.

2.     To keep a vibrant faith in the lives of young people. In the late 1800’s, Christian Endeavor emerged as an international movement that sought to help young people grow in their walk with Christ. Several mainline denominations soon formed their own organizations for similar purpose.  The denominational versions could take on a more catechetical approach as they brought to the table their own particular theological and ecclesiological emphasis.

3.     To provide Christian fellowship for teens.  Following the formation of denominational organizations that promoted Christian faith, local churches began fellowship groups for young people. These in some cases shifted the focus from discipleship to training in churchmanship. In many denominations over time these fellowship groups became a holding place for youth to be involved until they would be old enough to participate in the full life of the church.

4.     To reach unchurched young people with the gospel.  The para-church movements of Youth For Christ and Young Life took a decidedly more evangelistic approach.  The emergence of a distinct youth culture created a context to reach teens that were not being ministered to in the church.  Youth For Christ began with evangelistic rallies (Billy Graham being one of the main evangelists) and Young Life took a local club approach where groups met in students’ homes.

5.     To make disciples of young people.  In some ways reacting to the para-church movements, a number of organizations emerged that either sought to disciple teens or created resources for the church to make young disciples.  In some contexts this has meant resourcing or partnering with parents.  Most American youth pastors would likely describe their purpose in youth ministry as primarily making disciples.

Looking at the aims of youth ministry over history helps us see how context shapes the needs and opportunities for ministry to students.  My friends who do urban youth ministry speak of the need to get students off the streets while those doing suburban ministry complain that their students are far too busy for youth group meetings. Most of us however would deplore the idea of simply providing fellowship for youth because we have seen the need for making disciples and evangelizing the unchurched. Some would argue that there was a time in recent history when it appeared as if youth ministries existed merely to attract large crowds and make the church leadership feel good about the future of the church.  Fortunately things are changing in the youth ministry landscape both here and further afield.

Dave Wright is the Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and blogs at

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Confessions of a Small Town Student Pastor

Every now and then we take our regular worship service and change things up. I give our band a night off to thank them for their hard work and to create an environment that doesn’t become dependent on something else besides the Word taught. Typically we do a time of prayer that involve several stations to engage them in repentance, thanksgiving, service, and supplication. I usually ask them to write out their prayers. I think writing prayer helps to process what you’re praying for rather than a series of ‘dear Lord’-s. This past time I had them write out their sin they wanted to confess on black paper with a dark pencil and tape it to the cross, after they had read 1 Peter 2:21-25.

Now confession time: I read the pieces of paper. This is as old a youth minister trick as the caramel covered onion or the camp roommate assignment list. It provides an immediate and anonymous look into the lives of students, to give a window into what prayer needs are there in our student ministry. It’s beautiful, but it’s heartbreaking.

We serve in a typical American small town. Most of the businesses are locally-owned, it’s impossible to find a good cup of coffee (I miss Starbucks), the school systems are the predominant social group, and when an accident happens on the main road it can tie up the entire town. Our town hosts a regionally known Division I university, and is the primary education seat of our region. We were also voted last year as the “Friendliest Small Town in America” by Randy-McNally. The summer focused on a special election about making our town wet, which prompted the opposing side to declare our town a good old-fashioned American town, the one that loves family values and is a good, morally sound community.

But that image of Mayberry is not what I read on those slips of paper. Most of them were your standard teenage angst: rude to parents, talking about other people, dating one guy and being interested in another, struggling with siblings, and not focusing on school as much. But there were some that hurt to read. A girl who cuts and covers it by bullying. Several guys who admitted to pornography. One who admitted to repeated inappropriate text messages to different girls. Still others who admitted to pot, alcohol, and other substance issues. Broken relationships. Sexual promiscuity. Dysfunctional family situations. Same-sex attraction. You name it, it’s sitting on my dining room table, the tears and shame visibly evident.

The veneer of our community, and even our church and student ministry, is one where everything is ok. But behind that good face is an indescribable hurt. One that is being masked by a fig leaf of religiosity - or worse yet, the false promise of an insecure salvation. None of the self-help, guidance counseling, crisis intervention, or anything like that can solve this pain. Only Jesus can.

So what to do? What follows is at attempt to process all this and offer some prescription for us in smaller communities.

Pray - Intercede for these students, pray for wisdom for parents, pray for repentance, pray for God to increase grace.

Don’t be naive - We cannot pretend that these kinds of problems belong ‘over there,’ and miss out on reality. These problems aren’t city problems or poor problems or ethnic problems. They’re problems that come from a Deceiver who wants teenagers to believe something else besides Jesus will satisfy them.

Address the heart of the issue - The issue isn’t drugs or alcohol or peer pressure. The issue is the heart, one that is bent against God. Make sure to not lose sight of this and try to fix addiction, self-harm, etc. The first need is Jesus. Then work on everything else in light of that.

Be honest - I plan on sharing that I read the cards, and begin by offering myself and my wife as resources. Knowledge isn’t power, only knowledge that is used has any value. I could choose to overlook these findings, or choose to respond to them. These issues are very real and painful - to ignore them is a shameful act.

Involve parents - Small town ministries may find themselves fighting against a cultural Christianity, rather than an emphasis on the work of Christ. Many times my thought is that parents assume their kids are safe/fine/good. But meet with your parents and begin to bring them on board. Take time to pray for students. Maybe they’re even hiding knowledge of their teen’s problems because of shame. Remove that, and every other barrier that prevents the Spirit from working.

Refocus - Take a minute and assess if you’re teaching accurately about the power of the Gospel. Make every message, teaching time, devotion, etc. about the Gospel. Teach the all-inclusive and all-encompassing power of the Gospel to not only save the soul but provide the answer to the deepest conditions of the human heart.

Pray - Worth repeating.

Seek wisdom - Student ministers, remember: we’re not Superman. Bring in other godly leaders who have likely dealt with similar issues. Get yourself in a network, get in contact with older student ministers. Involve your pastor in the conversation. Whatever you do, do not do it alone!

Scott Douglas serves as the Minister to Youth at Westside Baptist Church in Murray, KY. Scott has a Masters in Divinity and is presently pursuing a Doctorate degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Hail Mary, Blessed Art Thou Among Skeptics

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is the Virgin Mary (hence the name of my baby girl, Mary Matthews.) Very often, the honest, authentic, and skeptical nature of Mary is lost in Christmas sentimentality.  Working from the text in Luke 1: 26-38, here are several ways in which Mary serves as a superb model and entry point for teenagers struggling with and doubting Christian faith:

11.)  Mary questions whether things that come from God are good or bad.
When the angel appears to Mary to deliver a message from God, she was greatly troubled at the saying and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (v.1:29). She did not just assume that all circumstances or words that originate with God are good. In reality, this is the deepest question with which teenage skeptics wrestle. At the bottom of their doubts- regardless of whether they identify themselves as an atheist or agnostic- they believe in a higher power. However, they question whether that “god” is personal and good. Mary, the mother of God, shares their same hesitations when the angel appears to her.

22.)   Mary wrestled with questions about science and religion.

When the angel pronounced to Mary that she had conceived a child, she asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Given that Mary stands as perhaps the most celebrated and revered woman in Christianity (or any world religion for that matter), many teens may be surprised to see that she raised doubts about science and religion. She did not just assume, “Well, of course, the answer is that God will perform a miracle.” Mary raised the reasonable question that her conceiving a child defies the biological explanation of how children are conceived, since she not had sex before. She needed help and reassurance from God to come to where she could believe that God would and could perform a miracle and that He is at work in this realm. What a comfort to teens that struggle with questions over science and faith that their struggle is not new and that even that strongest of Christians experience it too.

33.)  Mary came to faith in light of suffering.
So many teenagers resist embracing God because they have suffered trauma or see so much evil in the world. Many times I hear teenagers say that they never can believe that there is a good God because they have seen and experienced so much suffering.  Mary serves as an example of one who has experienced the worst and still maintains faith in God. Mary is a poor, disenfranchised woman who will become ostracized from Jewish society because she appears to be a whore. Her family will have to flee and leave the country due to wicked leaders who want to slay her baby. Herod will murder all of the children in her hometown on account of her child’s special status as King of Kings. A suffering teenager, who really wants to believe but simply can’t, may find comfort and hope in seeing how much the matriarch of Christianity suffers and yet still can embrace God.

44.)  Mary’s faith comes from God, not effort.
In my own life when I fail to walk in the reality of God’s goodness and the benefits of Christ’s death on the Cross, I futilely try to muster up faith to believe. I have found that I have to ask and trust God for the faith that I need to walk in His truth. Mary’s transition from doubt and questioning to humble obedience does not come through effort, self-talk, or technique. God does something in her heart to make that giant leap across this spiritual impasse. After hours of conversation and reference to apologetics, I often come to the conclusion with a student that he or she needs to ease off trying to generate faith and simply ask God to give them the faith they desire. Mary’s incredible faith appears to come by God’s miraculous work in her heart as opposed to Mary’s spiritual determination.