youth ministry 3.0, part 8

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 eighth bit, from chapter 4:

By the late 1960s, youth culture had come into its own. There was no more posing. Think: early Beatles in suits with cropped hair, 70s Beatles in psychedelic hippie clothes and long hair. Clearly a shift had taken place. Teenagers had no memory of a time when not everyone went to high school, no memory of a time when all children were expected to do whatever an adult said to do, no memory of a world without their own music and style and values and celebrities. In the minds of a 1970s teenager, youth culture had always existed.

Churches were finally waking up to the need for youth ministry in their midst, and moving beyond only a “young persons” Sunday school class. Youth Groups sprung onto the church scene, and churches started hiring youth pastors left and right . Para-church youth ministry organizations began focusing more on kids outside of church, and churches began to utilize the methods forged by those para-church youth workers in the safe and secure contexts of their church walls.

I am a child of this shift. The large church I attended in the Detroit area always had an active youth program. But it was while I was in junior high (in the early to mid-70s) that our church hired its first youth pastor, who was only responsible for high school (us poor junior highers were still stuck in a nothing-but-Sunday school system ). We still attended, as a group, the occasional Youth for Christ (or Voice of Christian Youth) rally, which was a holdover from Youth Ministry 1.0. But by the time I got to high school, these rallies had either ceased to exist, or we just stopped going to them. We didn’t need them: we had a fully functioning, large youth group that met all of our programming needs (as well as our spiritual formation needs, I suppose). We were self-contained and active, with a full assortment of retreats, camps, ski trips, bike trips, missions trips, mid-week programming, bible quizzing, teen choir, lock-ins, and everything else a great youth ministry would dream of in the 1980s.

The birth of Youth Specialties

The ministry I lead, Youth Specialties, was born at the beginning of this era. And the founders of Youth Specialties, Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice, played a lead role in this epochal shift. Both Mike and Wayne had been active participants in Youth Ministry 1.0, working for Youth for Christ in the San Diego area. They’d cobbled together a friendship of sorts, based on a common calling and common frustration with the church. But when they began to see the para-church organization they loved get more calcified, at the same time as churches were hiring youth pastors, both went on staff at local churches.

Just before Mike and Wayne left their para-church roles, they’d developed some (then) revolutionary approaches to youth ministry that had less to do with preaching, and more to do with creating community in a group of teenagers, interacting with them in real dialogue about real teen issues, helping teens live out the gospel within their own culture (rather than encouraging them to come out of it), and a deepening understanding of adolescent development and how it should inform everything they did in youth ministry. Mike and Wayne had written these “ideas” up as the first Campus Life manual for Youth for Christ.

Now, I have a deep respect for YFC, and am very encouraged by their current leadership. And we’ve joked about this together: but if it weren’t for what happened next, and the bull-headedness of YFC at the time, Youth Specialties wouldn’t exist. Mike and Wayne wanted to make their little collection of ideas available to other youth workers in churches, and asked YFC for the stuff they’d written. When YFC denied their request, Mike and Wayne belligerently set out to completely re-write what they’d written, making it better than before.

In 1969, Mike and Wayne handmade a hundred or so copies of this new book, which they (not so) creatively called Ideas (the “Ideas Library” continues to be an important part of Youth Specialties publishing effort to this day). Mike typed up the copy and printed them out on a mimeograph machine at his church. Wayne hand-silkscreened the covers onto store-bought binders. They took the books to an early gathering of youth workers at Forest Home Christian Conference Center (then Forest Home Camp), outside of L.A., and literally sold them out of their trunk, all of them.

That’s when these two pioneers realized there was a huge need to resource church youth workers, and Youth Specialties was born .

The Reification of Youth Culture and the response of teenagers

Let’s jump back to youth culture at large for a moment. As Americans (and Brits, and Canadians, and other countries) got used to the rising dominance of youth culture, entire industries of business sprung up to meet the demand of growing youth culture. In short, youth culture became commoditized. And that commoditization both reinforced and reified the existence of this increasingly powerful sub-culture.

And a funny thing happened: the commoditization of youth culture, I would suggest, lead to the confidence of youth culture. In a personified way, youth culture had the identity task fairly worked out. It knew who it was. And this was confirmed by both the marketers drooling for teen dollars, as well as parents and churches and just about every other adult-run organization reacting against aspects youth culture. For many adults, Youth culture was like porn: often outwardly derided, but secretly pursued. And this worked to confirm youth culture’s understanding of itself.

This is when and why the prioritization of the tasks of adolescence shifted. With a clearer sense of identity, a sense of confidence, and an undisputed place in culture, youth culture began a more earnest effort to define itself in opposition to the culture at large. This is in the very DNA of youth culture, really – it will always work to become “other” and unique, always mutate to stay counter-cultural and rebellious .

Of course, identity and affinity were still crucial tasks of adolescence, both for youth culture in general, and certainly for every single individual teenager; but the top priority – the fixation – shifted to autonomy. This makes sense, doesn’t it? If the whole nation is acknowledging youth culture, and many are clamoring for it, youth culture has to put a high priority on finding it’s uniqueness (and, in a positive way, finding it’s unique contribution) in order to maintain its newly formed, but still pliable, identity.

4 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 8”

  1. You look even at the Christian music industry and you see how it started to grow legs in the 70’s. I am the product of the late 80’s early 90’s youth ministry. I got saved at a Petra concert. That’s right, Petra. “This Means War”. But at the same time how much of the whole christian industry would exist if it wasn’t for the existance of youth culture. I am not saying this as right or wrong, it is just what happened.

    I graduated high school in 1993 and man how youth culture has changed in the last 15 years. It is hard to keep up. But looking back, youth culture is always changing.

  2. I am not sure that my comment has relevance to the writing. It just brought something to mind and I wanted to note it.

    The first time I attended a YS convention as a fairly-newly hired 25 year old Youth Director was San Francisco 1995. I lived in Reno, Nevada and had been to a National Resource Seminar in the spring of the same year at a church in Sacramento. I had previously thought that the NRS was a huge gathering of professionals in my chosen field. I was then encouraged to attend the “big” convention where I would get more training. I walked into the convention center for four days of wow!
    Hundreds of people just like me, serving Jesus, helping lead teens to Christ. It was just so cool. Every turn brought me face-to-face with a Christian celebrity (DC Talk) or a previously unmet mentor in ministry (Chap Clark and Ray Johnston). It was very exciting being among the big boys.
    My world was different than some. I found out at that convention that some churches had a staff of youth pastors and secretaries. I had grown up in southern Arizona with volunteers that obviously had never read an Ideas Library book. I loved them regardless, because it the late eighties there were no youth pastors where I came from. You know the song, “love the one you’re with.” We did!
    Now that my eyes were open to this ginormous world, I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Tic (Long) and Mike (Yaconelli) were on stage yakkin’ it up and started playing the “who’s been in youth ministry the longest?” game. Well, somebody won it with 20-something years. That was crazy to me! How did they do that? What church or denomination had that much of a clue that long ago?
    Being a teenager of the “me generation”, I really thought that youth culture had just started a few years before I graduated high school. I was in church in the seventies and when you got to be 12, you had to go sit in the hard pews on Sunday morning that we colored on during the Wednesday Night “I can pray better than you” meetings.
    The point of my tangent-laden story is this. I am sitting in the YS CORE the other day (spring of ’08) and as Les Christie talks about Generation Change, I pondered where the long-timers had gone. I, for one, was grateful that YS strategically made the change themselves this year to push for student leaders to come. I made this push about ten years back as my ministry shifted from adult-led/student-assisted to adult-assisted/student-led.
    Professor Christie (as I am sure he hates to be called) started the “who’s been in youth ministry the longest?” game. Yes, a nice lady in her early sixties with 30 plus years of experience won it. She was blessed with a fine $25 certificate to the Mini YS Store (I work the real YS store at convention, and I know the difference). Any way, besides my wife and I, only about 15 people were standing with 10 years in. Only five were left over 20 years in. We were at a CORE that had to have about 400 plus people attending. Where were the vets?
    Where are those crazy adults that liked to hang out with teenagers in the seventies and eighties? They have a wealth of experience and wisdom to share with us, but what happened to them? Were they all pushed out by the politics of kool-aid stained carpets? Do they sit around and have meeting discussing what could have been if someone would have said thanks? Did ministry styles and programming issues past them by? Were they just working there way to a senior pastorate and saw youth ministry as a stepping stone? Where did they go?
    I do not have these answers. I wish I did. I also wish that they would come back and help us new vets and rookies that are coming on line beside us. The church could really use their abilities, giftings and talents. I wish I knew how to talk them back into it!

  3. As a lay person volunteer more than 15 years of Youth Ministry — I want to say THANK YOU to YS!! You are invaluable! I work in the Church Resource Center at a Christian Bookstore (when I’m not with “my kids”)-and it’s always fun to point out the massive YS display to new people in Youth Ministry who are searching for ways to reach out to “their kids”. When I explain who YS is and how current & relevant YS stays, it’s a priviledge to see the relief/excitement on their faces. Marko – keep up the unbelievably great work! As a veteran who YS has rescued many many times, I salute you and the rest of the amazing YS staff. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

  4. Though Mike & Wayne were around for Youth Ministry 1.0, I consider them to be a prophetic voice for the church of today (and tomorrow!) in general, and to the church’s youth workers in particular. Their passion for creating authentic community is clearly seen in both their first “Ideas” release and in everything YS has published since those early days. Mike and Wayne clearly understand what being the body of Christ is all about. I especially enjoy Mike’s “Messy Spirituality,” it is one of the most honest and true-to-life treatments of the Christian walk. This book seems to draw Christians of different ages/walks together when studied in the context of a small group.

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