In this final installment of Angie Ward's report on the impact of youth ministry on the American church she talks more with Tic Long, Youth Specialties' president of events. Long shares his thoughts on the lasting impact youth ministry has had on the larger church, and what current trends among teens will continue to gain momentum among evangelicals in the decades ahead.
As youth ministry becomes firmly ensconced in middle age, it is appropriate as in any mid-life crisis to pause for reflection and evaluation. Indeed, youth ministry has made quite an impression on the American church landscape. Here are some of its greatest legacies thus far:
1. Better preaching and teaching.
"They're going to kill me for saying this," Tic Long said, "but youth workers are often better communicators than pastors. They may not be better preachers, but they know how to grab the attention of middle-school and high-school students pretty quickly; kids who aren't in the habit of being polite to just listen.
"As a youth worker, you learn to be a good communicator," he continued. "A lot of the good communicators today cut their teeth communicating to students."
In addition, youth workers such as Bill Hybels initiated the movement toward application-oriented communication. If God's word is not viewed as relevant, people will not be interested in hearing it.
2. Teenagers as catalysts instead of reactors.
Instead of waiting for teenagers to "grow up" before assuming leadership roles, youth culture and youth ministry emphasize the potential of young leaders. This emphasis has often trickled down (or up?) to the church as a whole, and entire churches can be inspired by a generation of young people who are desiring and daring to change the world.
"Working with teenagers is about more than telling them to not be on drugs and not have sex," Long said. "Youth workers want to see teenagers change their world. Sometimes that comes in conflict with an older generation, but when that moves up, that pushes the church outside its walls."
3. Indigenous ministry.
The United States is an extremely diverse collection of cultures. Whereas in the past, it was primarily foreign missionaries who spoke of an indigenous approach to evangelism, youth ministry has brought that philosophy home to the American church.
"We are in a culture that is just so diverse, and there have to and should be diverse expressions of faith," Long asserted. "What youth workers do on a smaller scale, and what we need to embrace, is that there are a number of different ways into a person's life....We get in trouble when we market and sell a certain way instead of letting things be organic."
So, what's next? Long believes that the larger church lags youth ministry trends by approximately 15-20 years. Regardless of the time delay, here's what it appears we can expect to see in the future of the church:
? An increase in social action and social justice. The emergent movement has called churches outside of their own walls and back into the community. This trend will continue, as indeed it is continuing among current teenagers who are far more globally aware and active than their parents.
? A continued emphasis on relationships over programs. "Good youth ministry is community and relationships," Long said. "It's creating this community where relationships can evolve. In essence, all good ministry should do that. People want to connect, they no longer want to just watch....even at Youth Specialties, I think the movement has healthily begun to de-emphasize programming."
? A movement toward intergenerational ministry. "Part of the adolescent thing is independence, but not completely. Youth ministry should be more purposeful and integrative, so that it is not just an appendage of the church, but is part and parcel of its identity," Long stated.
Only time of course will tell how or even whether these trends will impact the greater church, but if history is any indication, teenagers, and the people who minister to them, can change the course of history.
Angie Ward is a pastor's spouse, leadership coach, and founder of Forward Leadership. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina.