My second concern with youth ministry is that the current approach may actually work against the biblical model. Even the most avid supporters of the segregated model admit that it has often had damaging effects on family dynamics. Even Mike Yaconelli, an avid supporter and exponent of the segregated youth ministry model, lamented:
“[T]he curtain must be pulled back. If we are to keep young people involved int he church and if we are to renew our congregations, we first must acknowledge that many of our current forms of youth ministry are destructive.” (Mike Yaconelli, “Youth MInistry: A Contemplative Approach.)
That’s right, he said, “destructive.” Yaconelli’s criticism was sweeping in that he condemned all three of what he considers to be the main youth ministry models (The entertainment model, the charismatic youth leader model, and what he called the information-based model). While his critique is surprising in general, his critique of the Charismatic Youth Leader model was particularly poignant:
The youth-leader-as-savior approach, extrapolated from parachurch [sic.] ministries like Young Life and Youth for Christ, has generally been destructive for all concerned. Alone and segregated from the church community, youth ministers are soon exhausted. Expected to be walking icons of the risen Christ, they are not allowed to be fallible, and their need for Christian nurture goes unmet. Left as the sole mediator between the adult and youth congregations, youth minsters quickly become isolated, lonely and spiritually alienated. And even with the most well-intentioned ministers, the bait-and-switch strategy rarely works--teenagers often accept the youth minister as their personal savior but are rarely able to transfer their devotion to jesus Christ (emphasis added).
While I do not agree with Yaconelli’s ultimate solution, his critique is important, nonetheless. How can this extra-biblical isolationism produce biblical fruit? For example, it is common in both high school and college ministries to have a “Titus 2” approach. In other words, these groups encourage older teens (or college students) to ‘mentor’ younger teens. This sounds great on the surface but listen to what Paul says about the Titus 2 woman in light of the contemporary segregated model:
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands so that the word of God will not be dishonored” (Titus 2:3-5, NAS95S).
How can the older women instruct the younger women if everyone is in a Sunday School class with people within 9 months of their own age? Better yet, how can this type of mentoring ever happen if most of the younger women are across the parking lot in the youth building? An even better question is, “How much of our time do we spend in our youth and/or college ministries teaching young women about motherhood, homemaking, child rearing and biblical submission?”
Regardless of your position on Titus 2, don’t miss the point. It is difficult to establish a biblical format for a ministry that is not outlined in the Bible. Thus, youth ministers are some of the most frustrated people in church work. I am constantly bombarded with emails and phone calls from young men who have thrown up their hands as they realize the magnitude of their dilemma. As one youth minister from North Carolina put it, “If I become too pastoral, the kids won’t be entertained, and they will go down the street to the guy with all the bells and whistles. If I become to evangelistic, I get complaints about the shallowness of the group and the post-youth ministry dropout rate. I can’t win.”
This explains why parents who take their disciple-making mandate seriously are beginning to be skeptical about turning their children over to the youth ministry. How does a mother build biblical truth into her daughter’s life, nurture, guard and encourage her toward the application of that truth, then send her into an environment that will oftentimes by its very nature be hostile to that truth? How does a father raise his son to respect young women and protect their purity only to send him off to the youth building with exposed midriffs, low-cut tops and skin-tight jeans? Again, this is not universal. However, it is prevalent. And before you blame the youth pastor, know that there are young men out there who have lost their jobs for drawing the line on issues like immodest dress.
If you are a parent, I feel your pain! I understand the desire to raise kids who fit in and how difficult that is to balance with the desire to foster a sence of purity and holiness. If you are a minister in one of these contexts, I know your story. I’ve been present during some parent meetings where the youth guy was told, “We just pay you to entertain them; not to be the fashion police.” Unfortunately, there appear to be very few ‘winners’ in the current scenario.