How Teenagers Transformed the Church (Part 2)

In part 2, Angie Ward continues her reflection on the emergence of youth ministry and its impact on the church. The first generation of youth ministers, she points out, grew up to lead the seeker-driven movement that has dominated evangelicalism for 30 years. And now we are seeing the second generation of youth pastors bringing their own new ideas to the church. Although the seeker church movement and emerging church movement appear quite divergent, their common roots in youth ministry mean they share a common value - innovation.

"In youth ministry, you get permission to break the rules," explained Doug Pagitt, a former youth worker and now the founding pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. "Youth pastors get to do things that other people don't get to do. Youth ministry requires that you break the conventions to connect with teenagers. If breaking the rules is permissible in youth ministry, then why is it not permissible in a broader scope of ministry?"

Tic Long agrees. "You experiment and question a lot in your teens and twenties, and a lot of youth workers are in their twenties," he said. "They don't have all the vested interests and encumbrances that the larger church or the senior pastor has. They're not running the budget; they're not responsible for the whole machine. I think it's a breeding ground for creativity."

In 1972, a college-aged youth worker named Bill Hybels started a youth program at South Park Church outside of Chicago. Similar to the para-church model popularized by Young Life and Youth for Christ, Son City featured high-energy games, skits, and a dynamic, engaging talk by the young Hybels. The idea was to make the program so good that Christians would invite their non-Christian friends to the event. It was Jim Rayburn's ministry philosophy, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel," applied to the church. And it was a huge evangelistic success.

Three years later, Hybels took his idea of a "seeker service" and started Willow Creek Community Church. The rest, of course, is history. Willow Creek now ministers to nearly 20,000 attenders each weekend at a variety of services throughout the Chicagoland area. The seeker-driven movement has revolutionized the church. Even churches that are not explicitly seeker-focused have been challenged to give greater priority to evangelism in their ministries.

But Hybels is just one of many first-generation youth workers who went on to become senior pastors. Indeed, while one of Youth Specialties' founding beliefs was that youth ministry is more than just a stepping stone to the "real" pastorate, the reality is that many youth pastors did become senior leaders in the church ? and their churches are now among the largest, fastest growing, and most influential congregations in America.

May 18, 2007

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments


May 29, 2007  8:53am

Inovation and recreation may often yield what might have been cited as a silent approval to disregard the necessity of the true Christian foundation in the minds of some young people, of course judging the spiritual maturity and the dedication of the youth minister/leader. I beleive that as long as we can build a good firm foundation of Christ first among the youth, that we should be able to construct a monstrosity of a youth campaign around the youth ministries. Many youth revolutions are revolting to the originally intended purpose of the church. While we have the attention of the youth it is still necessary to encourage them to come out of the influence of their surroundings, and not to transform the inner-style of the church like as unto their former gathering places and hangouts. I,ve been in the church all of my natural life and it is clear that the youth of today will definitely produce a very different church for tomorrow; but maybe too weak to exact effective change on a more wicked society. Let's re-examine our purpose?! I LOVE THE YOUTH!!!

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Scott Smith

May 24, 2007  5:48pm

To continue to break the rules, you have to pay a price. You will not be accepted or admired for years. Not a lot of people are willing to do this. The ministry (excluding youth ministry) is a reactionary place to live and fear plays a big part. I have been in ministry now for 35 years and am old. But I still feel revolutionary, risk taking and stuffed shirt offending. It takes a dedication to be what you were made, to minister what you have been given and not worry about the reaction or the results. Not easy. Jesus said, "How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only? " (John 5:44 ) Paul said, "...if I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ." Gal. 1:10b I don't see any other way to avoid this trap. I am glad that there are sincere young ministers out there that are bothered by it and trying to avoid it. It encourages me.

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ndah john

May 24, 2007  3:12am

I have been in the youth work for the past seventeen (17) years and I have found that to be the best thing God ever made me live. I fully agree with the article above and the comments. However, I will say one of the difficulties youth ministries face is to keep the cart moving and everything exciting after many years of existence. I think one of the causes lies in what she said about the creativity and interrogative mind of teenagers and youths. the older youth workers get, the less inquisitive and adventurous they get.The inevitable consequence is that they get "routineered". One solution would be to regularly renew the leading team of youth workers. What other solutions can be proposed? Ndah J.

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May 23, 2007  1:12pm

I find that many times the problem isn't having a youth program, but having an out of balance youth program. What is your church youth group like? Big fun events - but no or poor small groups? Small groups, but one on one mentoring relationships are unheard of? Hyper-relational, lots of 1-to-1 discipleship, but no draw for gathering new kids? Two of the three? To have a balanced ministry, it's all of the above, and a bit more (parental interaction, etc). No one part can replace another. No one part is optional. All of the above.

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May 22, 2007  6:21pm

I think Sara has really hit the nail on the head–moving from youth ministry into "full" membership within most congregations is often difficult and may well lead to the high drop out rate of college students and others in their early 20s. Perhaps part of the problem comes from the focus so many youth ministries place on trying to meet the "needs" of the kids instead of helping them to see that they can–and must–become servant members of the body along with their elders. We too often have raised "consumers" instead of servants and then wonder why church doesn't provide the spiritual support these young adults are truly seeking.

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May 22, 2007  1:54pm

I did youth "programming" for years. Our mantra was "If we're doing the same thing in five years, we're doing something wrong." We knew that we had to stay relevant to the culture and keep the focus outward. Our goal was not to entertain or babysit. We didn't want kids to regurgitate Sunday school answers or shut their brains off when they came in the door. Our goal was to get kids to think, to question, to raise the bar. Teens are exposed to so much and often feel stuck in the middle when it comes to "Christian" culture – how do you live differently? And not just morally? How do you challenge kids? How do you channel all that energy and creativity? How do you keep the curiosity alive? Now the next question... how do we keep this going into adulthood? We focus so much on our youth that often we forget what comes next and put so little effort into our young adults until they have kids and then stick the young parents in the nursery or have them teach a Sunday school to preschoolers and wonder where that excitement went. Educate the WHOLE being.

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