Did Youth Ministry Create the Emerging Church?
Tony Jones tells youth ministry profs to blame themselves for the Emerging Church movement they criticize.

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.

December 01, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 39 comments


January 15, 2012  3:15pm

There's something to this argument: The whole "Youth Ministry" (and "Young Adult Ministry") experience was geared toward the idea that Every Christian Was A Minister. Every Christian Was A Leader. Every Christian Was An Evangelist. We were trained through 6-8 years of firing-up to go out & do active ministry & Then we got to "Adult Church" and were told to sit quietly in the pews, or at the most, teach Sunday School. And.Give.Money. other than that, leave "ministry" to the "professionals," "leadership" to the "more mature" (which for some of us, in some churches would Never BE US, unless we grew an extra chromosome,)No wonder we felt excluded. But has the response been a church that is equally exclusive? Equally unrelatable?

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January 14, 2012  7:30pm

@nathan - It's too bad that you malign D.A. Carson, his was the only book I've read that made me gain respect for and want to like the emergent church. I wish emergents were willing to engage him, instead of cutting off the conversation before it started.

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Dick Stone

December 27, 2011  7:07pm

I think the term 'Emerging Church' has become entirely nebulous and is now used to describe any church that doesn't fully resemble, in doctrine, structure or approach, traditional denominations as espoused by the person doing the labelling. Had they had such terminology a few centuries ago the Roman Catholics would have labelled the Lutherans as Emergent and the Scottish Reformation would have been Emergent to the Anglicans. But I suppose we can assume Skye Jethani deems the Emergent Church anything other than mainstream: Protestant/Reformed/Baptist/Pentecostal/Catholic. That being said, the very title of the articles suggests Skye views the Emerging Church as entirely negative and any movement away from the Establishment as serious. While there are definitely those within the Emerging Movement who are flirting with or have embraced heresy and false spirituality, there are others who have much to teach Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity about recovering the complete Gospel and have managed to get beyond the reductionism that plagues so many pulpits in North America. I'm referring to those who have reduced the Gospel to 'the plan of salvation' and 'sin maintenance'. The Good News includes not only Christ's reconciling of humanity, but also the rest of the story: that with the coming of Israel's king, the Kingdom of Heaven broke into this world and God is in the process of reconciling His entire Creation. And Jesus commands that we, his disciples, are to live Kingdom lives in communion with the Trinity and other believers. And Kingdom living includes getting our hands dirty, it includes social justice issues (the latest 4-letter word for conservatives) like addressing poverty, healthcare, inequality, etc. and rejecting the narcissism and arrogance that infects much of the evangelical and fundamentalist world. For Skye to dismiss everything Emergent paints with much too broad a brush and discourages some much needed correction in much of the church. As to the question itself - Did youth ministry create the Emerging Church? - it may have contributed, but I think the greater influence is the very times in which we live: a post-Christendom West. As the influence of the church waned from the 60s through the 90s, and church attendance and the perceived morality of the culture has been in serious decline, much of the church has reacted with cries of lament for its loss of status and power and attacked the culture rather than engaging it. For many embracing the Emerging Movement the negative aspects of Christendom have been laid bare: institutional values rather than community engagement, a reluctance to admit and repent of past institutional crimes, using the corporate business model to operate, the use of political power to bring in the Kingdom, religious compulsion, punitive rather than restorative justice, marginalization of women and the poor and an obsession with who's in and who's out. Many Emergents reject the patriarchal, aggressive, homogenous, judgmental approach, being dubious of the theocratic ambitions of some on both the conservative and the liberal side. And they see this as entirely contradicting the Gospel that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed. That gospel has evolved over the centuries to become unrecognizable in some quarters. As Tony Campolo once said (paraphrasing): "Christianity began as a movement, went to Greece and became a philosophy, went to Rome and became an institution and government, went to the rest of Europe and became a culture, went to America and became a business." Many in the Emergent Movement seek to restore the Biblical model to the modern church, rejecting the truncated Gospel that has isolated and marginalized many churches and rendered some irrelevant. While there are some things to reject in the Emergent Movement, there are also some things to embrace. If Youth Ministry helped along the latter, well more power to it.

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December 14, 2011  5:32pm

"why do people need to lock their doors during the day when they are home when 40-50 years ago they didn't even need to lock it at night and they are living in the same house? Why are out of wedlock births now the norm? Why is sexual disease rampant in the population when 50 years ago it was confined to a very small, defined minority? I could go on..." uh-boy, seriously? I will assume that you are an American, and therefore a product of the American education system which I will grant has failed miserably to provide adequate historical instruction of any significance. I think, elegance, it is time to undo your...misconceptions, and start reading prime sources from the colonial period...starting with the newspaper articles, diaries, and books. Aside from fascinating reading, it will also take you back to a time that, as you will discover on your own, wasn't all that simple, wasn't all that quaint, and wasn't all that pure.

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December 14, 2011  9:54am

I would submit that, No, youth ministry did not create the emerging church. It's really the other way around. The emerging church grabbed hold of youth ministry through Christian colleges and seminaries where good Christian parents sent their children to get a good Christian education. Colleges and seminaries are places where accountability is nearly impossible to achieve and liberal professors have a captive audience. This is the age vacuum where young people are looking to find their own way in life and guess who is more than ready to fill it? Unbiblical propaganda is present in even the most conservative of school classrooms and no one sees it. I read a statistic sometime back that one of most well known seminaries in America bragged that 90 percent of incoming students believed in Biblical inerrancy and when those same students left only ten percent still did. Youth ministry is a great idea. Unfortunately though, the fox is often guarding the hen house.

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December 14, 2011  9:41am

sheerahkahn, if there is nothing different in America today than in the past, why do people need to lock their doors during the day when they are home when 40-50 years ago they didn't even need to lock it at night and they are living in the same house? Why are out of wedlock births now the norm? Why is sexual disease rampant in the population when 50 years ago it was confined to a very small, defined minority? I could go on...

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December 11, 2011  12:15pm

I hear you Patricia, but there is something else that calls out. This something else is called history of humanity, and more specifically the United States. The incredible thing is we, today, tend mythologize our past, first legend, then the legend growths to be an unassailable social myth. One of which America was became because we wanted freedom. Thought kinda/sorta true, the real reason was because of taxes. In the grand scheme of things, and this will comport with primary sources if England had granted the colonies representation in the House of Parliament there would have been no Revolutionary war, there would have been no Declaration of Independence, no bill of rights, nada. Also, there is another myth, propaganda once you read anything else from the colonies that Ben Franklin didn't write about, which was how "Churchy" our early forefathers and foremothers were. Sorry, furthest thing from the truth. Which, oddly enough, brings me to the truth of our early heritage: Early America is really no different than today. Premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, gay-parades, but in the case of early America more like water-front sailors and pirates looking for a little love, male or female, gender mattered little. And the Church, the church was the same then as it is today...in conflict, seeking social relevance, and failing miserably to do just the basic message...preach Y'shua risen, and to make disciples of men and women who wanted to be followers of Y'shua. The American Church, not anyone denomination, but the entire show, every congregation across America has this history...and that is the truth...there is nothing new under the sun, and more so, there is nothing new between early America, yesterday's America, or today's America.

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December 09, 2011  1:21pm

I'll probably be scoffed at, but I was born in the mid 1950's and so I had met my grandma's older sisters and brothers who were born in the 1880s and later. Everyone was from a German background, and belonged to the Lutheran church, Missouri Synod, which is conservative. Their parents, and the past generations all belonged to the same church, or if they were in Germany, it was called the evangelical church. When I was growing up, there were no youth groups, and we were taught religious doctrine in church sermons and also in confirmation classes, which were usually held in about 8th grade. I looked up family records, and people stayed in the church generation after generation. I am no longer Lutheran, because my eschatology has changed, but I hold on to the same essentials of course, like the virgin birth, Jesus' atonement for our sins, His resurrection, etc. But it is society that has changed. They are told by television, movies, celebrities, public schools, and magazines and books that evolution is how we came to exist, taught that waiting for sex until marriage is almost crazy, and that people who take their faith seriously are stupid, foolish, and unscientific. I think that parents must start teaching from toddler on up that God exists, read them Bible stories, take them to Sunday School, set an example yourself, and closely monitor what they watch on tv, especially at young, impressionable ages. As they grow older, give them reasons to believe, so that they can adequately defend their faith. Pray continually for them. Everything in society today, from our President mocking the Bible, on down, is telling them that they and the Bible are wrong on many things like homosexuality. If you don't believe the Bible yourself and are telling your kids that "some" parts of the Bible are true and "some" parts aren't, and everything in the world is tearing down God and the Bible, it's no wonder that young adults are turning from their faith. 1Cor 3:18-21 "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS" and again, "THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS." So then let no one boast in men." Isaiah 55:9 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts."

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Tim Moyler

December 09, 2011  10:58am

The growth of "Youth Ministry" was because the church failed to make disciples using Jesus's model and his instructions.

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Sam Totman

December 07, 2011  11:58am

Are we really going to vilify all youth ministry? Couldn't most movements, both positive and negative, be blamed on youth ministry as many pastors start out their ministries as youth pastors? In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to think of one aspect of modern Christianity that doesn't have ties to young people.

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