Youth Ministry Isn’t Just About Youth, It’s About the Church

Skye Jethani weighs in on Tony Jones’ suggestion that Evangelical youth ministries are responsible for the Emerging Church. It’s a very interesting discussion.

The suggestion is rooted in the idea that the youth ministries of the 1980s and 90s were formational to the generation that would launch the Emerging Church movement, due to the values and sensibilities of those ministries. Having grown up fully engaged with the models described in this assertion (I was a youth, fully active in Evangelical youth ministry in the 80s), I find it hard to argue against this suggestion. My own story confirms rather than challenges the assertion.

Likewise, the youth ministries of the 50s and 60s are implicated in the birth of the contemporary megachurch.

The point of this has less to do with megachurches or the emerging church, in either of which there is plenty to both applaud and bemoan. The point is how we understand faith formation and more specifically, ecclesial formation in our churches.

I don’t read these ideas as criticisms of what youth ministries were doing in past decades as much as keen observations related to how formation works, and the law of unintended, or at least unforeseen consequences.

It reminds me of that great interchange near the end of The King and I, where the king’s son declares that when he is king, he will make a proclamation that his subjects no longer be required to bow low, with faces to the ground, in the presence of the king, because it is humiliating for the people, and “a bad thing.”  His father, on his deathbed, turns to the teacher, Anna, who has had such a progressive influence in forming the ideas of the young prince and says, “…I believe, this proclamation is your fault. ” To which she replies, “Oh, I hope so, Your Majesty!”

The point of this, to my thinking, is not so much that youth ministry matters more than we think, but rather that it matters in more ways than we think. And that it’s not just a place to keep youth occupied and help direct their personal focus on Christ. It is, in fact, a primary catalyst in the formation of the church future.

In that light, consider the final two paragraphs from Jethani’s second post on the subject…

I’m not entirely sure, but based on work by David Kinnaman at Barna and Kara Powell at Fuller, I’m concerned that youth ministry is forming the values of isolation and activism into Millennials. They’re relationally isolated from other generations in the church, and their faith is isolated from any sense of calling or vocation. At the same time they are linking faith to social action toward the poor and marginalized, but this is often emotionally driven without a theological rootedness that can fuel engagement when emotion runs dry. Without a robust theology of justice, in time compassion fatigue may set in and activism slip into apathy.

Could these values explain why we’re seeing an exodus of young adults from the church? While it’s always been a problem, adults often returned to the church after getting married or having children. But that’s not the case anymore. Could the values of isolation (separating young people from the rest of the church community), and activism (a sense that real faith happens outside the church and may make church irrelevant) be behind the de-churching of Millennials? Time will tell.

I think these guys are on to something. And, it’s not just about youth ministry. How are we thinking through and understanding the role and mechanism(s) of formation in our churches? Are we understanding the role of every part (worship, youth ministry, children’s ministry, etc…) in the whole? In most cases, I think we are falling far short of a holistic understanding, and the intentionality needed for rich formation that goes much beyond the individual. And, if statistics tell us anything, we aren’t doing so well with that either.

Saying “time will tell” may suffice for the social observer/commentator, but not for this pastor/practitioner. I hope we can take the batan from such keen observers as Jethani and Kinnaman, and do something with it. Let it be.

Tony Jones’ original post

Skye Jethani’s part 1 and part 2


  1. Neal Watkins says:


    Well said! I think you nail the takeaway from what Skye, Tony, and others are identifying. As youth leaders, parents, pastors, so much of what we teach, demonstrate, and model is far beyond our “message.” The way we teach and the way we live speak as loud or louder than our words.

  2. russ says:

    Thanks for the posting, Neal. The “medium is the message” mantra applies more broadly and profoundly than we often realize.

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