Shane Stacey is national director of ReachStudents and a member of First EFC in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ministry to youth is an essential part of the missional focus of the church.
I’ve spent enough time in youth and pastoral ministry to experience the regular questions that surface in the mind of a leader: Am I making a difference? Is this—ministry to youth—worth it?
Often, we don’t see the full fruit of our investment until five or 10 years down the road. As I talk to youth workers, I find many wondering if they hitched their wagon to the wrong horse. They wonder if ministry to youth is the best place to invest their lives.
The questions are valid, but they usually show up in moments of weariness, criticism and discouragement.
First, let’s get perspective about both who we are ministering to and the time in history we are ministering to them. Generation Z—the bottom half of the Millennials—is the largest generation in history and the first generation in America to grow up in a completely post-Christian culture. During the last couple decades, tsunami-sized waves of cultural change crashed on the shores of our nation unlike anything we experienced. In a few short decades, these waves washed away some of the foundational moorings that existed since the inception of this country. The church finds itself in a new context. Therefore, ministry to Generation Z is different and more difficult than when I started in youth ministry more than 20 years ago.
Think about it. Today, children and youth face questions with which no generation before wrestled (e.g., Am I male or female?). I believe one of the most foolish and short-sighted things we can do in the church today is to view ministry to youth as a sub-ministry ministry or of secondary importance. I believe ministry to youth (and children) is not only important, but essential.
When casting vision, some say you must give a clear sense of urgency and provoke the fear of loss. The tactic gets used in the church when those outside of youth ministry stir up fear by suggesting the majority of emerging adults leave the church, even inflating numbers to assure a response.
While I could do the same, I want to change the conversation by focusing on why the church needs youth. Yes, youth need adult members of the body of Christ to grow into a mature faith, but the aging body of Christ also needs youth. I could give many reasons why youth are valuable to the body of Christ, but I hold to my top five reasons why the church needs youth—and why they are critical to the missional agenda of the local church.
#1 Intrinsic Value: Children and youth are intrinsically valuable as ones made in the image of God and are a visible sign of the extended mercy of God.
In our culture, youth are often idolized, marginalized or, worse yet, merchandised. Their value is based on how they benefit society, a particular agenda or add to the bottom line. But youth are not only valuable because of the potential R.O.I. (return on investment). When our motivation to minister to youth is driven by their potential as future leaders, we neglect giving them the dignity they deserve. Their value does not come from their potential. Youth have value because they are made in the image of God. An intrinsic value rests in youth based on their mere personhood.
Beyond this, the birth of each new generation is a sign of the continued mercy and long suffering of God who waits “for the full number of Gentiles to come into” the family of God (Romans 11:25). Children and youth connect us to the grace of God. They are a sign of God’s perseverance.
#2 Gift of Passion: The raw, idealistic passion of adolescents is a gift to the body of Christ that pushes adults beyond comfort and cynicism.
Youth keep the church fresh. They ask why and push beyond the status quo. I still remember Jordan, an intellectual 16-year-old who was skeptical for some time about the resurrection of Christ. I remember the day faith awakened after reviewing the evidence. He exclaimed, “Shane, if this is true then why wouldn’t we tell everyone. This is the most important news in the world!” His impassioned revelation challenged me, a young pastor at the time, in my comfort. His zeal stirred up the stilled waters of my own heart and passion.
In her book, Practicing Passion, Kenda Creasy Dean said, “Youth are wired for passion. They are looking for something worth dying for knowing that therein they will find something worth living for…and yet all too often we give them pizza.”
Youth are wired for passion and willing to abandon even good things for something they believe will give them meaning, purpose, love or pleasure. We’ve all seen a young person abandon lifelong friendships to pursue a new romantic relationship. Or, the teen throws away the trust and love of their parents to pursue the momentary pleasures of a drug fix. Or, a young athlete who pours everything into their sport because in it they find purpose and value. They are looking for a love that will satisfy their greatest longings. When youth, therefore, genuinely encounter the living Christ, they are often unstoppable. I’m sure we can all tell stories of students whose expressions of faith inspired our own. The unbridled zeal of youth is a GIFT to the body of Christ that challenges us out of our risk aversion, comfortableness and even cynicism.
#3 Agents of Ministry: Youth are not merely objects of ministry; they are rightful agents of ministry, today, as part of the larger intergenerational family of God.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the implications of the gospel when it comes to who we are as the called-out people of God, he says leaders were given by the Holy Spirit to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. He states the results of this equipping is that everyone will be able to push the gospel deeper into one another’s lives. Now, don’t you find it interesting that in this same letter Paul includes instructions to employers and employees, husbands and wives, but also to parents AND children (Ephesians 6:1-4). Paul assumed that children and youth were not only present in the reading of the letter, but also active participants in the body of Christ and ministers in their own right.
Youth are more than merely capable to engage the disciplemaking mission of God, they are critical to its completion! They are co-laborers and co-creators now. They received the same Holy Spirit as you and me. They possess gifts to awaken, nurture and activate for the benefit of the body and the advancement of the gospel. Youth are not mere objects of ministry; they are agents of reconciliation to the world.
#4 Relational Impetus: Teenagers remind the broader church that relationships, rather than structures, are the conduit for gospel movement.
As our lives get more complicated and organizations age, it is easy for the structures to become the focus. You hear it said, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In youth ministry no relationships equals no ministry. Programs and events are a springboard for relationships, but much of the real “ministry” takes place out in everyday life. While we never outgrow relationships as the means for faith development and faith transference, it seems we feel we can manage without them as adults, as long as we have good content.
However, Jesus modeled for us on earth that relationships are the conduit for disciplemaking. He invested intentionally in a few. The relational impetus of youth reminds the church that the conduit for gospel advancement and gospel growth is and continues to be intentional relationships.
#5 Learning Laboratory: Ministry to youth keeps the church aware of the changes in culture and the local context.
Our culture is changing rapidly and it’s easy for the church to fall behind. Ministry among youth can give the church a “first look” at coming changes. Ministry among youth gives us opportunity to experiment how to bring the unchanging Word to an ever-changing culture. At the same time, schools are a great barometer of the real needs and values of a community— giving a snapshot of racial, social-economic, familial and value diversity in a community. Ministry to and among youth in our community helps the church connect to and stay abreast of the changing context through the local school campus.
And don’t forget:
“God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers [specifically young believers], as you still do” (Hebrews 6:10 NLT, emphasis added).
I challenge you who minister, parent and mentor youth: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord [your labor among youth] is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV; emphasis added).