Over the last week, several friends have sent me a link to this article from The Christian Post. Among other things, this article declares that youth ministry is a 50 year experiment that has failed and as such, suggests that youth ministries should be “disbanded, calling the common practice of separating congregations by age for worship and Bible study ‘unbiblical.’”
As a self-proclaimed “lifer” in youth ministry, I found it difficult to read this article without taking offense. In many ways, it seemed to be attacking both my livelihood and my calling. Despite this, I’ve found myself pondering this article in the two weeks since I first read it, though I have not watched “Divided,” the movie that it references.
Though I disagree with much of what this article says, it does bring up a valid point. Many congregations do – intentionally or unintentionally – segregate people by age. Such segregation robs us of valuable opportunities to learn from people who are different from us and who, therefore, view life and faith differently than us and can, as a result, challenge our faith in ways that few others can. In many cases, such age segregation also robs us of much needed wisdom. Instead, it leaves youth trapped inside what I’ve heard others refer to as the “youth ministry ghetto.” When this happens, inevitably, the body of Christ suffers.
Despite this, the truth is, adolescence is a unique time in a teen’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development. As such, there’s a place for age specific ministry within the church. Teens need to be able to come together and share what they’re struggling with – a set of problems that inevitably is different from those that a 40 year old mother of two is struggling with. They need to do so in a place and context that then points them to the God who’s at work in and through those problems. Teens also need to be able to discuss and learn about their faith in an environment that deals with the stories of our faith in an age-appropriate manner, recognizing where teens are in their own ability to think and wrestle with issues – many of which deeply impact our understanding of faith.
For those reasons, I am (and hope that I will always be) an advocate of “youth ministry.” Yet, effective youth ministry requires not an either / or approach but a both / and approach. We need age specific ministry in the church, but we also need intergenerational ministry that allows teens to learn from the Saints of our congregations, to wrestle with their faith together, to try things and fail, and in the process, to discover and use their gifts to serve the Kingdom. We need this, not just because it’s valuable for the faith formation of teens, but because it’s valuable to our faith formation as well. After all, teens have an uncanny ability to touch, inspire, and challenge our faith journeys.
Among other things, that’s why I continue to be thankful for my church.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when our youth held our Shareholder’s Dinner to thank those from our congregation who bought stock in support of our summer mission trip to Rwanda. The night was a powerful one – in so many ways – as people joined us to hear stories of how God worked in and through our students during our time in Rwanda.
At the end of the night, the time came for me to thank our congregation for their support of our students and this trip. When it did, I could not contain the tears.
In that moment, I flashed back on the last year: To people’s generosity at our very first bake sale after announcing we’d be going to Rwanda, something that allowed us to raise $600; To people’s continued generosity throughout the year as we surpassed our goal of raising $22,000, an amount that allowed students to participate in this trip regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status; To the ways in which our congregation rallied behind our Rwanda team throughout the year; To the prayer buddies who prayed for and wrote letters to our team to encourage us while we were abroad; To the people who showed up early the day we left in order to lay hands on us and bless us; To the hundreds of people who read our team’s blog each day of our trip in order to journey with us; And to the warm welcome we received upon returning home.
The result is that this summer, our teens got to participate in a truly life-changing experience but so did our congregation, something that would not have been possible without both an age-specific youth ministry and a congregation who values not only it, but also our youth’s full participation in the life of our community.