By Matthew Hudson
Recently, editors of Leadership Journal, Marshall Shelley and Brandon O'Brien, interviewed the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary and a former youth pastor, Dr. Kara Powell (Ph.D., Fuller). It was so refreshing and encouraging to hear them ask one of the most critical questions effecting the church in our time. The question was asked in the title, "Is the Era of Age Segmentation Over?"
With the opening lines heralding the statistical verification that as many as eight out of ten of the most ministered-to generation are apostatizing, it is clear that the problem cannot be hidden any more. The argument is no longer about whether or not current methods are an epic failure. Instead, the discussion from all sides must now be about finding a remedy.
And from the title it is clear that at least part of the remedy being suggested by this youth ministry think tank is ending "age segmentation". In the second paragraph, we find the key passage to understanding what their research is aiming at:
"Though research is ongoing, it is already revealing a promising pattern: youth involved in intergenerational relationships in church are showing promise for stronger faith in high school and beyond."
Frequent readers of this blog will here be tempted to let out a collective, "Duh!" the size of the Lone-Star State. But in fact, the article has some noteworthy moments that will help us both be encouraged by new voices recognizing the problem, and warn us to be cautious about assuming that this also means the answers they've suggested are supported by scripture.
With a few glaring exceptions (which we'll look at below), it is encouraging that the interviewers ask such important questions. They really work to get at the questions that will naturally occur to any established church or ministry who is hearing this question asked for the first time.
A particular strength of the interview is the recognition of the value of multi-generational life and conversation. Dr. Powell frequently cites examples of the value of encouraging teens to take part in the larger community. The kind of relationships commended in Titus 2 are encouraged and lauded in story after story of parents, pastors, and church members being encouraged for the first time to make a more intentional investment in the lives of teens. Even the relationship between younger and older students is declared a positive factor for ensuring fidelity in later years. Peers seem to take a back seat, if only for a moment. Powell boldly states that, "I think the future of youth ministry is intergenerational youth ministry."
Another highlight is the encouragement to have high expectations of young adults. Through their study, they discerned that one thing that even students themselves recognize is missing in modern youth ministry is serious thought and deep discussion. Instead, games have too high a priority for many student ministries. The interesting note is made:
"Tenth graders study Shakespeare. What are we offering them at church? Nothing comparable to Shakespeare."
The point is made simply and accurately: raise the bar.
Yet, while they were laboring to answer these critical questions, there was one question they never asked. Not once was it asked whether or not God has had anything to say about how and by whom the discipleship of the next generation should take place. There wasn't a single question regarding the Scriptural precedent for youth ministry, or whether the Bible would suggest a solution to the problem!
Missing this question actually points to the larger presuppositional difference between a study like this and the reformation God's Spirit is working in churches around the nation. Instead of a concern for a biblical pattern of ministry, the basis of the study seems to have grown from a sociological and psychological concern. This certainly seems to be the case for many churches as well. In so many ways, our church culture believes it has more relevant messages and methods than Scripture. Friends, we couldn't be more wrong. Our enslavement to novelty is nothing short of idolatry.
Another concern is that early on in the article Powell makes some questionable assumptions. When asked where the "age segmented" model comes from, her answer was surprisingly recent. Though many would argue that the problems appeared most visibly with the rise of the Sunday School movement in the 1800's, Powell suggests a much more recent date: the 1940's, and the advent of Intervarsity, YoungLife, and Youth for Christ. I cannot help but wonder if pinning the problem on recent parachurch models might obscure or even hide the same--very real--systemic issue present in nearly every church with a Sunday School program?
Even the nature of some of the the questions asked by the editors reveals a fundamental love for the established system. As if trying to avoid calling youth ministry into question on the whole, they ask, "What were the benefits of [the Age-Segmented Model]" and "What other issues do teens face that make student ministry important?". In explaining how valuable distinct age-based ministries have been, Powell shows continued reliance on an understanding that, at their core, teens are looking for "identity" that must necessarily be found in "autonomy". This notion is at least part of what built modern youth ministry, and frankly it is simply absent from a biblical understanding of how children become adults.
One of the most interesting responses was to the question, "What is the parents' role in this intergenerational vision?". The answer given was noticeably missing any reference to the biblical role of a father as the primary discipler of his children. There was no biblical vision, no real hope. Instead, Powell suggests parents should simply talk more with their kids about church, with the new research suggesting letting the kids talk first. Talking more is a great first step, no question. But, someone needs to own the responsibility for instructing and training these young adults--for casting a great big vision of a great big God to them! I submit that the scriptures name that person. (cf. Dt. 6, Ps. 78, 127, 128, Proverbs, Isa. 61.9, Eph. 6, 2 Tm. 3.14-15)
The most telling and true question and answer was an understated, one-line response to the question: "What are some of the obstacles to this sort of ministry?" Answer: "A lot of youth workers fear resistance from other church leaders, parents, and even the kids themselves." Exactly!
So, if the folks being payed to do the right thing for your children are scared of the reaction they will face if they do it, what do you think the chances are that it's going to be done? Zero. If the choice for a student minister is to do the right thing that no one wants done or to collect a paycheck to feed their family, the current climate in most churches doesn't give them much of a chance to risk doing hard things.
Finally, they suggest that the way to implement this radical new (old) idea for intergenerational student ministry is to do it on a trial basis. That seems a bit short-sighted. Shifting the entire underlying philosophy of who is responsible for ministry to teenagers on a "trial basis" is like driving your car out on the lake after the first ice to see if it will hold! It will not effect the change you're looking for. In fact, it simply gives a date certain that the "experiment" will be over and life can go back to the ease of the "professional" care of our children and young adults.
While I truly am excited and hopeful to see professional youth ministers asking these fundamental and hard questions (which I hope will be asked of professional children's ministry as well), without looking to the Word of God as the final arbiter of truth, standards, and methods, there isn't much hope of doing anything better than erecting a new flawed ministry in place of the old one.
Matt Hudson (M.Div., Beeson Divinity School) and was part of the first class of elder/church planter interns at Grace Family Baptist Church (07-08). He is currently leading worship at Basswood Church in Knoxville, TN. He and his wife Emily are currently expecting their sixth child. Matt also works as a Document Formatter for Olive Tree Bible Software. You can contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.