I’ve been thinking about the big question of “what does it mean to have a healthy youth ministry?” I recently finished reading a book by Kenda Creasy Dean entitled “Almost Christian: What The Faith Of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church“. In it Kenda describes the growing trend within the american teenage culture of being “spiritual” but not Christian. Teenagers today are focusing less on who God is and more on how connecting to a higher power makes them feel. Christian sociologists have used the phrase “Therapeutic Moral Deism” to define exactly how this paradigm plays out. I don’t have time to get into everything about Therapeutic Moral Deism, but you can learn more by reading this article by Christian Smith who wrote the book “Soul Searching”.
So how can we build a healthy youth ministry in the midst of our current teenage culture? What do we focus on as we build our youth programs? As I am sitting here in a cafe writing this, I’ve drawn two different strategies on some napkins concerning where we as youth workers can put our focus. The first is what I am calling a “God-Centered Youth Ministry”. Here’s the concept:
In a God-centered youth ministry all of our teaching/small groups/etc. focus in on “theology” which is the study of who God is. We focus on what the Bible says about God (what He is like, His characteristics, His plan, Salvation,etc.). From there we then move on to “anthropology” which is the study of human beings. Simply put, it means this:
1) FOCUS ON JESUS & WHO HE IS
2) IN LIGHT OF WHO JESUS IS…WHAT IS A TEENAGERS RESPONSE?
So what is the other option? What is the opposite of a God-Centered youth ministry? Below is my doodle concept of a “People-Centered Youth Ministry”:
With a “People-Centered Youth Ministry” the focus in not on Jesus, but on the students. This kind of youth ministry will focus on particular types of teenage behaviors and how those students attempt to navigate the ideas of spirituality. Simply put, a “People-Centered Youth Ministry” looks like this:
1) FOCUS ON THE STUDENTS AND HOW THEY FEEL
2) STUDENTS BECOME RELIGIOUS.
The problem with the second model of youth ministry is that religion will never save anybody. In our world today there are tons of religions and I hear students (and adults) say all the time time that “as long as your are sincere about your faith it doesn’t matter what you believe.” However, no matter how sincere you are, you can still be sincerely wrong. Check out this event from the book of Exodus:
“When Joshua heard the boisterous noise of the people shouting below them, he exclaimed to Moses, “It sounds like war in the camp!” But Moses replied, “No, it’s not a shout of victory nor the wailing of defeat. I hear the sound of a celebration.” (Exodus 32:17-18 NLT)
Moses has just come down from Mount Sinai where He received the Ten Commandments from God. Suddenly he and Joshua hear the sound of the entire people of Israel celebrating together. They here a united people shouting and singing and worshiping. However, just a few verses before we here what God has to say about their worship:
“The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted down gold and made a calf, and they have bowed down and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” Then the Lord said, “I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10 NLT)
Even though the people of Israel were being sincere, God told them that they were sincerely wrong! We have to be diligent in our effort to point the students in our ministry to Jesus and not to the world. We need to place our focus back on to the study of God and not on the study of ourselves. If we don’t, we can fall into the same trap that the Apostle Paul spoke of in the book of Romans:
“Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:21-23 NLT)
Which model above can be seen in your own youth ministry? Which aspects of your current programs would you have to change in order to bring Jesus back to the center?
Rob Ham works on the WILDSIDE Jr. High Team @ Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA and blogs at I (Heart) Youth Ministry.