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).