Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 3
America’s youth are in trouble. Children in America are growing up with no memory of Christ — the first pagan generation this country has raised — according to Jay Kesler, former president of Youth for Christ.
While that may not be a startling revelation, what may surprise you is that some of those kids in trouble may be in your very own church. Yes, they know about Christ, but very possibly they have not the slightest clue how to be His disciple.
Covenant children and those outside the church are a major new mission field. They have deep-seated problems, some of which arise out of frustration and anger at not bring able to figure life out. There’s guilt, anger, and fear because they have accepted some of the “isms” of our day, and they still come up empty. Home is a nightmare, for the most part; youth pastors regularly deal with broken homes, single-parent families, stepchildren, and blended families. It is not an easy “fix-it” situation.
Those who work with college students are seeing the results of such sad scenarios. According to Bebo Elkin, Mississippi Coordinator for Reformed University Ministries, “Many students who come to us are very open to Christ — some are strong believers. But much of the student population of the late 1980’s is passive and unable to accept responsibility. This lack of emotional maturity is making more evident the need for a stable pastor figure who is always on campus to reach them, to comfort and disciple them, and to equip them to serve Christ.”
The church has been slow to deal with young people in a meaningful way. Youth pastors were unheard-of in the 1950’s, so organizations like Boy’s Club and the YMCA took on the church’s job of youth ministry. Then Campus Crusade, Young Life, and Youth for Christ sprang up because the church was failing miserably in ministering to youth. Suddenly, thousands of kids were receiving Christ everywhere. Slowly the church began to catch on; however, it has only been in the last ten to fifteen years that creative literature on youth ministry has been published –but not in Reformed circles.
In many cases in Reformed churches youth ministry is a case of feast or famine. Often, churches say they don’t have enough young people to warrant a youth group but they don’t make an effort to evangelize youth outside the church. In other cases, churches neglect their covenant children for the sake of evangelizing unbelieving young people. These churches make no effort to reach the kids who have made a profession of faith but never participate. Are they growing spiritually?
The situation is critical. The church must address it immediately. What is happening in youth groups, and what should be the church’s strategy for youth ministry in the next decade? To find out, we talked with two dedicated veterans in the field of youth work who teach youth ministry courses at RTS — John Musselman and Ken Crosswhite. Musselman (RTS ’76) has been involved with youth since 1971 and was youth minister at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church for ten and one half years. He now pastors the northwest congregation of Perimeter Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and gives leadership in the youth area. Crosswhite, a former RTS student, has been in youth work eleven years and is now associate pastor in charge of youth at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
THE URGENCY OF A RELEVANT YOUTH MINISTRY
There is a dearth of youth pastors in Reformed circles today simply because schools are not placing great emphasis on youth ministry. Therefore, training creative and innovative youth leaders has become a dire need in the church — one that RTS is committed to resolve.
“Presbyterians have lagged behind in setting up educational training centers where youth ministry is seen as important,” says John. “It’s ironic because we believe in covenant theology and pledge at baptism to support the nurture of the children, but realistically very little has been done for kids in the church.”
“Some churches,” John continues, “think the parents simply need to do their job better. We don’t really need youth pastors. My response is, ‘Well, let’s just not have church. Let’s do everything in the home. Why have a pastor for adults but not shepherd the younger ones? Passages like Deuteronomy 6:6 and following and Psalm 78 do give the responsibility of training children to the parents. But every time you see a commandment like that, by extension the church is responsible to the covenant community. You see, in Israel, it was never just the individual, but the family unit and covenant Israel who were responsible for modeling the faith and teaching the younger generation.”
Ken lists four reasons why youth ministry is so important to the spiritual growth of young people. First, God’s family is an extension of the family unit, and we are to nurture not only our children but those of other believers as well.
Second, many times we miss the necessity of bringing young believers in contact with older believers. A mutual ministry can thrive between the two–combining the zeal and enthusiasm of youth with the wisdom and experience of the elders — but it does not happen by itself.
Third, youth need the strength and encouragement they can grasp from social settings in the church, developing confidence speaking before large groups of people and learning that their value is based not on their performance, but on their relationship with God.
And, finally, our youth cannot discern their talents and gifts unless we allow for service and outreach within the church. We usually tell the kids, “You probably have some gifts from God, but wait until you get older to use them.” So the student usually finds some secular organization where his talents are put to use immediately, and he feels worthwhile. In church, he feels he is just taking up pew space.
ARE WE SELLING OUR KIDS SHORT?
“People minimize the spiritual warfare that goes on in young people,” says Ken, “and they have not grasped the fact that youth are the most spiritually responsive people in our society. During adolescence they make some of the major decisions of life — choosing a master, a mate, and a mission. By the time they are in their thirties and forties, they are much less susceptible to discipling.”
We also may tend to think our children aren’t ready for service, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. We need to send them on summer missions projects and challenge them to bring friends to evangelism retreats; one important way to grow in Christ is through service.
Churches also generally underestimate the untapped leadership abilities of youth or their potential to cause revival in the church; six out of nine known revivals were started by young people.
Says Ken, “As believers in covenant theology, we should implement programs to use those capabilities now, not when they are thirty. Let’s train them to stand up for God “now•, to change the nation and the church “now•. I’m excited as a youth pastor because we impact lives early for Christ. It alarms me that in many churches students are not thinking very early about choosing a school in order to pursue a career for God but are simply going for the degree. By the time they reach forty, they will look back and say sadly, ‘I never thought about how I could be used by God.'”
Finally, if we are not going to sell our youth short, it seems the church itself must elevate both youth ministry and the youth pastor to the significant status they deserve. There is a high turnover in youth ministry; the average youth pastor stays only eighteen months, often because he is saddled with menial jobs and does not get paid enough. The youth budget is generally the lowest in the church — sometimes only one percent of the total budget.
In addition, we need to change our image of youth ministers. A significant number of people think that the youth pastorate is a job someone has on the way to “growing up” and doing something else. People regularly ask youth pastors when they are going to be “real” pastors and quit babysitting and eating pizza. The leadership of the church can help in these areas. They should support the vision for youth ministry wholeheartedly, and the youth pastor should make certain he communicates his enthusiasm for the ministry, helping the senior staff to embrace his ideas.
A BALANCED YOUTH MINISTRY
One of the challenges of a youth minister is to balance a program of exciting, fun activities for young people with solid biblical content, practical knowledge about how to live the Christian life, and an understanding of Christian doctrine (why am I a Christian, anyway?).
Unfortunately, youth pastors tend to emphasize the area in which they have talents, and the group may become unbalanced. Consequently, the ones oriented to activity programs don’t teach the deep truths of the faith, the kids are not discipled, and they don’t know what they believe and why.
For example, studies have shown that the average high school student asks Christ into his life twelve times. Why? Because he has never been taught the doctrine of assurance, plus he has a “good works” theology and doesn’t understand he is saved by grace. Most young people have a horrible self-image; they really don’t understand Scripture, nor do they understand God’s unconditional love for them.
Youth need to be taught truth because truth transforms. They need somebody to draw lines for them, especially in the areas of dating and sex. They really want to know what is holy before God.
On the other hand, under the very doctrinally-oriented youth pastor, young people know their theology but are bored to death and have no fun. Attendance is poor and the young people learn little practical Christianity.
Ideally, there should be a balance between the two approaches. John comments, “It is important to have serious as well as fun times. Retreats and ski trips can be powerful tools for seeing change and accomplishments in lives outside the classroom because students can see the youth pastor without a Bible in his hand and relate to him in a totally different way.”
DISCERNING THE NEEDS
All programs are not bad. In fact, a carefully selected program can really enhance a youth ministry. The danger, however, of simply going to a seminar and buying a packaged program of activities is that sometimes people don’t discern the needs of their youth properly.
“A church should understand that God gives them a vision for their youth ministry,” explains Ken. “Then, in respect to that vision, they devise biblically-based guidelines to accomplish it. The youth pastor may find a very helpful program in line with the his aims and objectives, but he must also have a solid discipleship, equipping, and Bible-oriented ministry. Otherwise, it’s going to be more fluff than substance. In many programs there can be activity without real ministry, without the students being challenged to transform their thinking and develop a heart beyond their own self-gratification. The church then becomes an entertainment center which continues to feed the ‘meism’ that is already so prevalent in our society.”
“Before you pick a program,” Ken warns youth pastors, “consider your personality. Do they match? Many young youth pastors feel tremendous pressure to be just like the guy they heard at the seminar and are tempted not to use their own spiritual gifts. This will frustrate you. First, determine your spiritual gifts, then develop a team of leaders around you who have strengths which you do not. Know yourself, then pick your program.”
In the final analysis, however, it is important to remember that programs do not reach kids; people do. The Holy Spirit works through people who are involved with other people. The ideal goal is a people-oriented ministry which concentrates on growing individuals up in Christ and meeting them where they are.
WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
John is positive about the future. “I think that youth ministry is coming of age. More churches are beginning to understand that the primary role of the youth pastor is the same as the senior pastor–equipping the saints to do the work of ministry. And if the church is not equipping kids in discipleship, evangelism, mercy ministries, missions, and all other areas of ministry, we are indeed failing in our jobs.”
How To Build An Effective Youth Ministry
Rev. Jim Serio, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina, and a twelve-year veteran of youth work, is an expert on building effective youth ministries. He has served as youth and family pastor at three large PCA churches and currently teaches a course at RTS in equipping and discipling young people. In addition to conducting PCA youth and family conferences, where he teaches adults how to start youth groups, he also likes to speak at youth conferences and retreats to maintain hands-on experience in dealing with youth.
Below are Serio’s guidelines for a church just beginning a youth program or for one whose youth group is floundering.