Modern Youth Ministry Formula

By Dietrich Kirk

The modern youth ministry movement, commonly traced to the establishment of Christian Endeavor in 1881, has generated various models for ministry to young people, but nearly all of these models reduce youth ministry to a peer-based youth group.  Today, youth ministry efforts in most congregations are synonymous and indistinguishable from the establishment and operation of a youth group. Over the past 130 years various denominations and organizations such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, Son City (Willow Creek), Youth Specialties, and Group have offered sundry models for ministry to young people, yet nearly all of these models start with common modern assumptions.  

 

The modern formula assumes that youth ministry requires (a) a peer-based group (b) that meets together regularly face-to-face (c) with other like-minded peers (d) under the guidance of designated Christian adults (e) primarily for the purpose of personal spiritual enrichment or education in the faith (f) using age-based curriculum that is deemed developmentally appropriate (g) with the goal of seeing youth matriculate into adult Christian activities. While elements of this modern formula can be identified in the Christian formation efforts of the church across two millennia, the manner in which the church has been beholden to this staid formula for youth ministry over the past 100 years is stifling.

 

Despite significant investment by denominations and para-church organizations, the groundswell of concern in mainline denominations about youth ministry has become impossible to ignore.  A quick survey of the landscape of youth ministry in mainline churches across the country reveals one consistent fact: Youth ministry in the mainline church is undeniably in trouble. Yet we continue to turn to the modern formula with its emphasis on peer-based groups for personal spiritual enrichment as the dominant, if not sole, form of youth ministry. Traditional youth group is not the only way to accomplish youth ministry. It’s our contention that a dearth of viable and tested models constrains the imagination of church leaders and keeps the church in a cycle of imitation rather than innovation even as youth group dies on the vine.

 

As a grant proposal under the Innovative Models for Youth Ministry Project, the Innovation Laboratory for Youth Ministry seeks to spur congregations to design and support innovative models of youth ministry that are effective practically, grounded theologically, and widely replicable.  American congregations (especially in the Protestant mainline) are beholden to fear of loss and decline and fear tends to constrain organizations leading to retrenchment rather than innovation.

 

On the other hand, innovation spurs innovation such that if even a small number of congregations can effectively experiment and innovate in youth ministry — and report their results widely — this is likely to help other congregations and bodies overcome the fear in which they are mired that keeps them bound to the modern youth group formula. We believe the key to breaking out of the mold is to help a select group of congregations (a) design and test innovative models of youth ministry (b) that are theologically rich and practically effective, and (c) to report about these new models widely (d) while the laboratory provides other congregations the resources and tools to adopt and modify the innovative models as their own.

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