the future of youth ministry, part 5

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m posting them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.
part 1 (searching for the right way)
part 2 (discipleship, barriers)
part 3 (intergenerational ministry)
part 4 (parents)


ok, i can’t wait any longer. i have a bunch more responses to post; but i have to post my favorite response. seriously, this just might be the best two paragraphs ever written on youth ministry (really, i’m not kidding!). there is more awesomeness in kenda dean’s two paragraphs (yeah, i asked for a sentence) than in many entire youth ministry books.

kenda creasy dean, btw, is professor of youth, church and culture at princeton theological seminary. she’s also the author of three of the best youth ministry books ever written: the godbearing life, practicing passion, and almost christian. you are not allowed to call yourself a thoughtful youth worker until you have read all three of these books (i’m half kidding, but only half).

ok. take a deep cleansing breath, then read this:

Kenda Dean
Teenagers know, better than we do, that when we ask them to be Christians, we are asking them to do a very dangerous thing. The only way out is to adopt a “safe” version of Christianity (which might not be Christian at all) that helps them become good, nice people instead of people who love others sacrificially. But as we know, good and nice “Christianity” seldom lasts past high school, since teenagers quickly learn that people can be perfectly good and nice without Jesus anywhere in the picture.

So I think in the future, youth ministry will try to re-weird-ify Christianity, highlighting Jesus’ radical actions and peculiar self-giving love, in an effort to resist the American church’s habit of trying to tame the gospel into a middle class bedtime story. If Christianity is dangerous, then we need to act like it. Teenagers aren’t afraid of risk, but they want to know that Jesus is worth it. Young people are going to demand that we, the church, be who we say we are–people who obviously follow Jesus, which makes us “weird” in a culture based on self-actualization and self-fulfillment–or they’re just not going to bother with us at all.

so, i could ramble about why i so strongly resonate with this. but i’d just be repeating what was already said, using less eloquence and punch. i’ll use more restraint here than i did in the pre-response gush.

i would, however, love to hear your responses…

28 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, part 5”

  1. I agree with the thrust of this comment, but I think it needs a bit more explanation or it may run the risk of being misinterpreted.

    There is a massive danger in ‘safe’ Christianity – a friend of mine used to talk about ‘Dawson’s Creek’ prayers (those where you strip out anything which really smacks of the Gospel and you are left with people having emotions and being nice to each other) – and it’s one which we fall into all too often, but I think there is also a danger in saying that we have to be weird or we’re not doing it right. There is also a connected danger in saying that love is not really at the heart of Christ, but just a nice cherry-on-the-top for when there’s no real discipleship or ministry to do.

    To be a Christian means to love with the heart of Christ for its own sake, and not to focus on whether we fit in or not. Sometimes we will, other times not.

  2. Kenda is right on as usual. Last night I was leading a weekly Sr. high discussion group in which we were discussing good/bad publicity for God. Our conversation was led by a popular music video parity “Like a Jesus” to which I asked the question “is there bad publicity for Jesus?” After about a 35 minute discussion on billboards, books, and street corner preachers one Junior girl spoke up and said, “why do we always concentrate on the good stuff only?” This adolescent was striving to get to the same point Kenda has been making. Many ministries today have found sole focus in the Grace and Love without showing a very real difficult and dangerous reality of being a Christ follower. This teen said she was fine with sharing the “good stuff” with her friends but also wanted them to know that following Christ had its difficulties and truly following Him was going to mean very real changes in their lives. Comments like this show that our culture’s teens are getting it in some degrees, as Kenda is saying, they want something that is worth it. This teen shouts hope and direction for youth workers; the future is indeed helping teens see that a drastic maybe even dangerous change is worth it, being “weird” is not a reaction to being an overly bubbly publicist for Jesus it is a reaction to a dangerous life following Christ chosen because it has been presented as worth while.

  3. Young people need to be offered Christianity as part of “a worthy adventure” towards which they can dedicate their lives. Discipleship must be presented as something worth walking away from whatever trajectory (fishing, tax collecting, persecuting as a few “old school” examples) for which you life already may seem determined. Accepting the “Follow Me” invitation will involve risk, radical action, and peculiar self-giving love.

  4. “If Christianity is dangerous, then we need to act like it. Teenagers aren’t afraid of risk, but they want to know that Jesus is worth it.” is a great statement. reminds me of C.S. Lewis in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe: talking about with Aslan is safe…
    ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’
    And so should be the basis of what we lead our students into. great post.

  5. Dean’s comment is very good and very insightful. What I like about it is that it summarizes her book Almost Christian in 2 paragraphs. And she never says, “Go buy my book!” in the comment. That is refreshing. What I would also say is that Mike Yaconelli was saying the same thing 20 years ago–ruining kids’ lives for Jesus; etc. I’m not faulting Dean as being late on the uptake–her comments are based on fairly recent research. I’m just saying that while her comments are based on solid research, Yaconelli was a prophet from God to youth ministry and youth leaders.
    But I think there is a larger question. Why all the discussion on the future of youth ministry? It’ll get there. And there will be lots of stops on the way with lots of versions of youth ministry that are effective and some not so much. There is no answer to this question, really, since there is no one size fits all youth ministry. And I think Dean’s comments are really not just about the future of youth ministry. I think she is actually pointing us where youth ministry needs to go now. The question is descriptive in nature, but Dean’s answer is prescriptive. Not a bad thing in this case.

  6. This line says it all for me:

    “But as we know, good and nice “Christianity” seldom lasts past high school, since teenagers quickly learn that people can be perfectly good and nice without Jesus anywhere in the picture.”

    In fact, I think I’ll tweet it…giving due credit of course.

  7. As followers of Christ, the Jesus we follow led a very “dangerous” life of faith that eventually led Him to a Cross. I believe most students understand what’s at stake when they commit to following Jesus with their lives. But could it be that they get confused when they look at our lives and it just doesn’t match up? How am I living dangerously today? What am I risking to follow Christ? How am I taking myself out of the center of the universe and putting Jesus there on a dialy basis? God, give me this kind of faith!

  8. Kenda speaks consisely and with impact. Her wise words remind me of what Dr. David Wells said in an interview with Walt Mueller in response to the question below. Compare David’s answer with Kenda’s –

    If you were to address a room full of youth workers and you had the opportunity to communicate one message to them, what one message would you communicate?

    DW: It is time to get brave. Let’s stop the pandering. Kids see right through it. Let’s give them the real thing. They are looking for it. No one has demanded anything of them; let us tell them that if they come to Christ, he bids them die. No one has told them that they can know truth as something other than their own private perspectives; let us tell them there is Truth and those who know it, lose their lives. No one has told them that there is a different way of life. What many churches have done has been to run after the kids fearing that they will be lost irretrievably to MTV, rock, sex, and drugs. So, better to give them small, undemanding doses of Christianity that won’t interfere too much with their lives and which they will be willing to accept, than none at all, we think to ourselves. Wrong! If we tell them that they can have Christ on their own terms, we are selling them down the river. They instinctively know that. So, let us not make fools of ourselves anymore.

  9. Your dead on in your praise, MarkO. Just tweeted the article out to our ym360 peeps. Dean is a great ym voice. Love her thoughts, here.

  10. I love Kenda’s new book and I’m right with her on most of what she says. After 20+ years in youth ministry, however, I’m not entirely convinced that all or even most youth will ever demand that we offer them a dangerous faith. Most will be content to settle for our attractional ministries that blend entertainment with a little bit of religion. They will know in their hearts that what we are offering isn’t really consequential, but they’ll enjoy it for what it is and then leave the church behind once they graduate high school. If we aren’t willing to leave behind the notion that we have to keep faith simple, comfortable, and entertaining in order to attract teens, I’m not sure much will change.

  11. Right on Kenda! “Safe” is the best way to describe our desensitized Christianity.

    This Sunday, I preached on Luke 13:4-9, and spoke on a misconception that we all have at some level: that God owes me a good life. Gave a brief overview of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Smith and Denton’s work, and asked parents in our congregation where exactly they learned that from. Safe Christianity boils down to MTD. You’re right Marko: these two paragraphs are amazing.

  12. I like Dave Ambrose’s point: if it’s so hard for me as a Christian leader to live dangerously for Christ, we shouldn’t expect this kind of Christian life to actually materialize on a grand scale. However, I don’t think we minister in order to gain huge masses of people–we must remember that God uses the small group of people we usually think of as insignificant to accomplish the greatest feats for the kingdom of God. For example, my wife and I will never be famous, but I believe we will be mightily used of God to form our children into Christ-centered kids–we are determined to do so, and very few people outside of God will ever know what we have done. I think if us Christian leaders (whose real motivations for a “successful” ministry are often suspect at best) would not try so hard to “reach our schools” (who are mostly full of spoiled kids who will only be interested in God enough to come to our all-nighters or attend our youth meetings), and instead lay out Christianity as it is to be lived, we might still attract quite a bit of people–that is, until it’s time to put it into practice–and then we’ll know who is ready/willing to live dangerously for Christ. Run with those few and let the chips fall where they may, and then believe that God will do truly great things with such a peculiar group of insignificant teenagers.

  13. I love how one of the most intelligent people in youth ministry can go all Dr. Suess and just make up a word.

    She needs to get t-shirts made with that. And that has a better ring to for her next book than Almost Christian 2.

  14. Youth ministry is showing young people where God is already present in their lives and then giving them language to share that experience with others. In the weird and the normal, among the rich and the poor, in times of grace and during moments of weakness and sin. God is always there and our Catholic Faith allows us to respond to God’s grace. The key is showing teens how to discern and become the people God created us to be. To quote Saint Francis de Sales, “God will led us all (youth ministers and teens) into perefction one step at a time.” We need to take the journey of faith together, rather than just tell youth that now it is their turn. We can only be authentic if we continually seek to learn to “Live Jesus” in the changing circumstances in our lives and by being people who sacrificing with love and celebrate with joy.

  15. Kenda says much more intelligently what I have been wrestling with. In my ministry, I have determined to be more “Jesus-centric” and less “God-centric”
    Obviously, I understand they are the same, but I want to use less God-talk because God is safe….most teenagers believe in God, like the idea of God, etc. “God” doesn’t ruffle feathers, but Jesus sure does!

    You can be Pro-God and still not be a Christian (as traditionally defined), and still fall into a whole bunch of religious camps. But when you identify with Christ….now the game changes. Nothing safe about truly being a follower of Jesus.

  16. Dean is (as usual) a ruthless blessing to youth ministers everywhere. And I think she’s right in implying that teens actually WANT a more radical and genuine discipleship.

    It’s adults who will be the hard sell.

  17. I agree that it is adults who are going to be “the hard sell,” and I agree with Dean that teens often see adults failing to fully live out the glory and challenge that is Christianity-or wrestling with how to do so. Based on the research that is out there (Dean’s, National Survey of Youth and Religion, Fuller Youth Institute, Dr. Wesley Black) I wonder if the future of youth ministry involves several things: 1. youth ministries connecting adolescents and adults who are living out their faith. 2. youth ministries making it part of their responsibilities to mentor, disciple, challenge, and train adults in their faith. 3. youth minsitries educating, equipping and training adults how to interact with teens. Adolsecents have the advantage of being far more comfortable with the change required from discipleship.

  18. Before I even finished the 2nd sentence of Dean’s response I copied the link and sent it to our Associate pastor… yeah spot on and AWESOME!

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