Did the modern youth ministry movement create the Emerging Church? That's the question Tony Jones addresses in a recent blog post. While presenting a paper at an academic conference, Jones fielded questions from professors of youth ministry primarily from evangelical colleges and seminaries.
Jones said to them, "You all have strong feelings about the emerging church movement, most of them negative. Well, you are directly responsible for the emerging church movement."
He went on to describe how contemporary youth ministry shuns the "accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles and rites). Instead, youth are encouraged to engage all of the practices of the community equally." In other words, the rejection of structural authority and the focus on a flat structure of relational authority which has marked the Emerging Church Movement was learned in youth groups. Jones noted how many ECM leaders first had lengthy youth ministry experience within evangelical churches: Tim Keel, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Condor, and Chris Seay.
To the youth ministry professors who may have a negative view of the Emerging Church, Jones said, "You taught them relational youth ministry, so what kind of churches did you expect them to plant?"
What do you think of Tony Jones' premise that evangelical youth ministry created the Emerging Church? I think he's on to something important here–namely that ecclesiology is taught (explicitly but primarily implicitly) well before adulthood. Kids form their understanding of church very early, and it stays with them into adulthood.
This poses a problem for many children and youth ministries that do not have a long view of formation. I think it's fair to say that many youth ministries are focused on helping students through high school by creating a fun, engaging environment where they might learn about faith in Christ and hopefully connect to relatively safe and healthy peers. But how many youth ministries are aware of forming a student's ecclesiology or practical theology?
The problem is a result, at least in part, of what Kara Powell calls the "Kitchen Table Syndrome" that marks many evangelical churches. This is how she describes the isolation and separation of youth from the adults in the community–much like the way kids get their own table at Thanksgiving. It's a "separate but equal" vision of ministry. The intent is to provide age-appropriate teaching, which is certainly good. But the unintended result is the formation of youth ministries that do not carry the values and traditions of the wider church.
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