youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.
we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.
by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.
so, here’s the seventh bit, from chapter 3:
I want to look back at an extremely brief history of the modern youth ministry movement ; but it’s critical to remember that – as easy as it is to critique from our perspective – these youth workers were revolutionaries at first. They were trying to be true to their calling to connect teenagers to Jesus, in the context of the culture of their time.
Youth Ministry 1.0
While adolescence had been identified in the early 1900s, and a wide variety of “youth” movements had already come and gone in North America, the UK and Continental Europe since the mid-1800s , “youth culture” – as an established, and widely acknowledged sub-culture, didn’t really exist until after World War 2. Post-war disillusionment, combined with the financial stability of the 50s, gave rise to a sub-culture defined on the surface by music, clothes, cars, and movie stars. But under the surface, this new sub-culture was more about freedom, attitude, spending power (a variable that often formalizes and calcifies a cultural sub-group, as marketing and product money gets focused at that particular group, which creates the cyclical affect of legitimizing them into a more powerful spending group), and… identity.
Christian youth workers began to spring up, sensing a radical, missional calling to reach teenagers for Jesus Christ. This really was missionary work: early youth workers saw themselves (rightly so) as bridging into another culture that was foreign, and had its own language, values, and codes of conduct. It’s helpful to note that these earliest youth workers didn’t try to become teenagers (or dress or act like teenagers), just as a good foreign missionary understands she is a visitor.
Here’s the odd thing about our youth ministry nexus (I use “our” as a youth worker who owns this as the history of my tribe). Churches (in general) were slow to respond to the rise of youth culture (big shock). Churches, and church leaders, equated youth culture with sinful activities, or – at least – unwholesome activities and rebellious attitudes. So those early youth ministry pioneers, who knew they had to be true to their calling, found — in large measure – that they had to do youth ministry outside the context of the local church.
Enter the rise of Youth for Christ, Young Life, and a host of other para-church organizations and youth evangelists. Remember, this isn’t the YFC and Young Life of today (or, even the past 25 years), with campus clubs and relational youth workers.
These were (mostly) white men, wearing suits, preaching (using the culturally-normative communication of the day) to rooms full of teenagers. Picture a rally, or evangelistic crusade, with men in suits preaching to eager audiences of teenagers, but addressing the real issues of the youth world.
Christian teenagers (especially), and teenagers in general, were responsive to this missionary effort, because they were completely unaccustomed to adults, other than musicians and movies, speaking to them in their language, and about their issues, in a way that wasn’t purely pejorative and condescending.
Back to my proposal that the three tasks of adolescents have reshuffled into a different prioritization in each of these epochs, youth culture, at large, was fixated on identity. Not that autonomy and affinity weren’t important – they surely were. But identity was the task-du-jour. Youth culture had that brand-new shininess to it, fresh out of the culture mill. It was still newly observed and largely undefined. It (if I can personify youth culture for a moment) didn’t have a sense of itself yet, and had only just become self-aware.
These early youth ministry missionaries rightly responded to culture by allowing it to inform the language and topics of youth ministry.
Of course it’s a generalization to say that there were “key themes” of youth ministry in this era. And to be fair, no one gathered up a group of the earliest youth workers and asked them to brainstorm and vote on key themes. But I would suggest that the key themes in Youth Ministry 1.0 were Evangelism and Correction.
Evangelism. Early Christian youth workers saw themselves as missionaries to youth culture. And they saw their task, or calling, primarily in terms of bringing the gospel, in culturally understandable language and examples, to an unreached people group . And reach them they did. These evangelistic efforts were highly successful (for many reasons, I’m sure, not the least of which would be the aforementioned hunger of teenagers to have an adult speak to them in their own language, on their own terms).
Correction. But buried in these youth-appropriate messages was an underlying bias that youth culture was bad . Youth culture, and the youth that populated it, needed correction, needed to turn away from the evils of youth culture (rebelliousness, idleness, carnality, licentiousness, wicked music, and a much longer list). Certainly, we continue to “preach” some of those messages today, and for good reason. But we’ve also grown in our understanding of adolescent development and the adolescent experience, and know that some of the things characterized as evil were merely the identity, autonomy, and affinity struggles of teenagers.
Interestingly, early youth workers were not pre-occupied with how teenagers dressed or talked, or the new freedoms they possessed. This was seen in a neutral “it is what it is” cultural reality.
For each of these epochs, I’ve wrestled with a “driver” for youth ministry, and the first two came to me quite easily. During Youth Ministry 1.0, youth ministry was primarily proclamation-driven. Small groups didn’t really exist yet (not in the way we talk of them or use them today). Creative curriculum and games and mission trips, and all the rest of what has grown as an industry within the church, were not being used in large measure. Youth ministry was primarily about preaching to teenagers.
Just as it is hardly fair to claim key themes for an epoch, no one gathered together Billy Graham and his cronies to choose a theme verse for their attempts. But if I can, with the benefit of hindsight, claim one for them, I would choose Matthew 7:13-14:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Then, in the late 60s and early 70s, some youth workers started thinking, “This isn’t working. Something’s wrong.” These second-wave youth workers ushered in what I’m calling Youth Ministry 2.0
[note: one of my early readers rightly pointed out that, while there’s a lot of overlap between evangelical and mainline youth ministry histories — especially in the upcoming section (youth ministry 2.0), what i’ve written here about youth ministry 1.0 is really an evangelical youth ministry history. and he was right. so i plan to correct that, just so ya know.]