What’s Wrong With Youth Ministry? Part 3 of 5…

Original Opinion Piece for June 26 (’14)

Below is the third installment of a five-part series on what is wrong with youth ministry in the United States.  Here are parts one and two.

Parts two, three (today’s post), and four (next week’s) are part of a consistent argument showing seven characteristics of a biblically faithful youth ministry.  We are well aware of skeptics, nose-snorters, and sermonizers who believe youth ministry is bunk.  We don’t blame them.  Since the 1930s when youth ministry began to take its modern and well-known form (well documented here), abuses have been common, both physical and theological/spiritual.  However, we still believe that any time a church speaks to youth it is engaged in ministry to youth and, therefore, the question remains: what does faithful youth ministry do?  What makes it faithful?  What’s it look like?

Last week we argued that the first characteristic of biblically faithful youth ministry is that it is relentlessly church focused. This week, characteristics two, three, four, and five.

#2: A Biblically Faithful Youth Ministry Is Historically Rooted

No one exists in a vacuum.  There is a history behind us that gives rise to a present which is so vast we hardly apprehend our current experience, and which gives rise to a future that grows whether we are self-conscious of its roots or not.  It should be vital to every converted person to self-consciously plant themselves in the growing history end-of-history-illusionof the church.  Why?  Four reasons.

First, because there is nothing new under the Sun (Eccl. 1:9).  Whatever problem we are debating has an answer in the past.  New technologies do not present unanswerable problems but do have solutions in principles of the past. Bioethics doesn’t negate or transcend the theological concept of imago dei (“image of God”), and believers have reflected on the significance of God’s declaration of man’s composition for three thousand years.  To ignore their reflections  reinvents the human wheel unnecessarily.  Past reflection empowers present formulation because there is nothing new; only the aesthetic—the wrapping paper—has changed.

Second, history is a chronicle and primer of sermons and meditations from thousands of years of the Holy Spirit bringing light to the darkness of the human heart.  What Anselm wrote matters to debates about the nature of Jesus’ work; what Athanasius established in his fortitude and tenacity matters in debates about Jesus’ person.  In short: wiser men than we have dealt with these questions and, through faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit, searched the Scriptures, found the answers, and left them to us for an empowered present.  We would be fools to ignore them and thereby deny or call irrelevant the Holy Spirit’s work over the last 2000 years.  Do you believe the Holy Spirit is living, active, and has been faithful to his people in our yesterdays?  Or do you only believe he is here today?  History is His primer on scriptural reflection.

Third, even a cursory understanding of past Christians and the controversies they endured emboldens faithful living in the present.  Hebrews 11 is a brief chapter that covers (what was then) roughly 1800 years and a dozen or so faithful believers, what they endured, and Martin-Luther-Quotes-4what they were rewarded for faithful living in spite of jaw-dropping odds.  On top of that, we have another 2000 years of witness from ancient China to modern England, often in blood, of real people living for a purpose and King whose reward was not here and now.  To ignore their witness is to diminish the Holy Spirit and deny a significant biblical principle given us by Paul, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  God has always saved a people for himself, and he has been faithful to them by preserving them through dark hours.  Don’t you believe they are worth knowing?  A friend once told me that history teaches us what is commanded, condemned, commendable, or just plain curious.  The past lives of presently living saints (in Heaven) are like role models exemplifying faithfulness in what appears to be hopeless situations.  In viewing our past fathers, we understand how to be godly sons.

Fourth, simply this: ignoring history is arrogant while embracing it relativizes the arrogance of the Modern, with all its shiny and seductive technology and methods, and reminds that humans are all the same regardless of what surrounds them technologically and culturally.  It short: it keeps us humble.

o-CANADA-LIGHT-BULB-BAN-facebookAny youth ministry which ignores the history of God’s activity in the world is prone to a myopic, dimmed faith and to present a canvas more resembling a child’s cheesy finger-painting than a God-made Rembrandt.  No insult to our precious tots, but what captures the imagination more?  A 20-something youth minister in skinny jeans and a faux-beard who has barely traveled, or the story of a man who experienced exile more than six times, charges of extortion and kidnapping and wizardry, and who overcame almost insurmountable odds while opposing heretical emperors, all for the sake of the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity?  Exactly.  Meet Athanasius!  History and Imagination are linked.  Compared to the brightened LED screen of an iGod, these past Christian lives and ideas are supernovas; they will blind with beauty and capture with fascination.

History matters because God is not dead.  He is active now, and he has always been active.  Faithful youth ministry will not neglect God’s faithfulness in our past and will seek to be historically rooted.

#3: A Biblically Faithful Youth Ministry Is Biblically Rich (duh!)

istock_000002698721small_3_1_Faithful youth ministry must be biblically rich in three ways.  First, it should practice what is historically known as lectio continua, i.e., “continuous reading.”  In short, it should teach from Scripture in a way that moves consistently and holistically through the Old and New Testament.  This is contrasted with exclusive topical preaching which, while not inherently wrong, does impoverish, over time, God’s people.  When we pick Romans and move through all 16 chapters without skipping a verse, this keeps the preacher from skipping parts he may struggle to understand, keeps the people from skipping parts they may not like, and teaches us to understand the context of parts in relation to the whole, not only within a book, but also the rest of Scripture.  We may always quote Romans 3:23, but having someone move from chapter 1 to 2 to 3 helps us understand Paul’s flow of argument by the time we get to the good news of Romans 4.  Topical preaching, i.e., going from topic to random or intentional topic, means the preacher is skipping around in the Bible.  Lectio continua also allows the timeless, permanent biblical text to set the agenda rather than our personal, fluctuating interests and concerns.  I may be depressed.  If I only turn to topical passages covering “joy” in the Bible, I may miss the grand vision of God in Isaiah 6 that my pastor may be preaching on that morning that is exactly what I need to escape my depression.

255458Second, youth ministry should utilize and showcase systematic theology.  It should be capable of showing a young, curious student all the relevant biblical texts on, say, angels and demons and the Church’s reflection as it developed over time.  Systematic theology is a rigorous, scientific investigation into major biblical themes.  This is not a contradiction with lectio continua, but a way to show the richness of the biblical text to major doctrinal areas (e.g., the Church, Jesus’ dual natures, the Holy Spirit, etc.).  Where regular preaching via lectio continua occurs, systematic theology can bring to bear the Church’s combined, historical reflection on a given doctrine.  In Matthew 16, Jesus explains one aspect of the doctrine of the Church (that she is founded on the confession of Christ as Messiah).  As a youth minister or pastor preaches this text, our resolve to confess Christ is strengthened.  Then, systematic theology can broaden the point beyond this isolated text in a way that honors it by showing how Matthew 16 connects to other important areas of the doctrine of the Church (membership, service and gifts, authority structures, discipline, history of, etc.).  Good preaching should, of course, be able to do this, but not on the same expansive and comprehensive scale as rigorous systematic theology.  Youth need this.  We all need this.  Systematic theology helps connect parts to the whole.

img_3927Third, youth ministry should illustrate biblical theology, i.e., how to understand God’s progressive, organic, over-time revelation to his people.  For instance, why does God have so many laws regarding clothing in the Old Testament? Biblical theology (BT) begins in Genesis 3: God clothing Adam and Eve.   BT then moves forward in the story and shows how clothing laws illustrate God’s progressive and ever-deepening provision for his people and their need to have shame removed and forgiveness given through a chosen, mediating priest.  In short: we need our shame and sin covered by God’s means, not our own.  BT can show how the Old Testament reveals what the Mediating Messiah had to be while the New shows who he is.  Biblical theology helps us understand God’s character, our need, and his solution as he revealed it slowly over thousands of years beginning and ending in a Garden (Gen 1; Rev 22), from seed to full-blown Gospel tree.

Systematic theology and biblical theology, working with lectio continua, unlock the vast treasure trove of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments and their single theme of Christ’s covenant with his people for the sake of his Kingdom.  All three work together to empower faith in the Scriptures as God’s authoritative words for his people (2 Tim 3:14-17).  A mature and faithful youth ministry will utilize all three.

#4: A Biblically Faithful Youth Ministry Is Rigorously Intellectual

Dale has handled this aptly in his post. I would only add the following two points to what he has said.

First, youth ministry that does not train students to ask questions and seek answers from Scripture is not training students how to think intellect-clear-thinkingGod’s thoughts after him.  As we are being transformed in our thinking (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 4:23), we increasingly think like God—we think God’s thoughts after him.  This was our original, default setting and sin has so marred us that we are on a total product recall.  Conversion transforms minds and interests—or should.  Are your students exhibiting a holy curiosity that stands upon the holy Scriptures or are they trying really, really hard not to watch R-rated movies as if that will change the lusts of their hearts?

Second, we must train students to see their inability to exhaust God, i.e, he is infinitely more grand than they have ever considered.  We must capture their imaginations with his being.  As Peter Leithart said, “Given that the Trinity is incomprehensible, there are limits to our understanding, and I regularly have students ask how far they should go. That has always struck me as an odd question. Incomprehensibility is not a reason to stop exploring and meditating, but the opposite. Because God is incomprehensible, He fascinates, and whatever fascinates draws us forward, draws us ever beyond the limits we thought were there.”


#5: A Biblically Faithful Youth Ministry is Repetitious in the Fundamentals of Doctrine

Faithful youth ministry never confuses curious intellectual pursuits with Gospel necessity.  Many ideas or concepts are worth pursuing away from the pulpit the youth minister possesses (economic theory, political involvement for Christians, “redeeming” Hollywood movies, literature and art criticism).  Interestingly, however, the Apostle Paul, who was caught up into the heavens and broken-record1had spectacular spiritual gifts and visions, says he decided to know nothing among those whom he evangelized except Christ and him crucified and the power of his resurrection.  He saw someone so glorious that everything became subordinate to the bold declaration of that Person.  This is not to say we become a broken record repeating imagined magic phrases about “Christ and him crucified.”  Reading Paul makes the point clear: he consistently applied a believer’s past justification because of the Person and Work of Christ on their behalf to a believer’s present sanctification and transformation into the image of Christ and did so because we are all on a slow march towards glorification in which the whole universe would be swimming in the glory of God (Hab 2:14).  Phew!  That’s a mouthful, but it was for Paul, too, and it caused him to break down in praise more than once.

In repetitiously hammering home these points, he applied the effects of the above to subjects as diverse as celibacy (1 Cor 7:1, 32-35), divorce (1 Cor 7:10-14), remarriage (1 Cor 7:39), prayer (1 Tim 2), the qualification for church leaders (1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-16), how people should treat, respect, and act towards one another in the church (1 Tim 5:1-25), slavery (Titus 2:9; letter of Philemon) content of church services (1 Cor 12-14), end times (2 Tim 3:1-9, 1 Thes 4; 2 Thes 1:5-12), and many others.  In short, Paul was not afraid to talk about life.  However, each was grounded in God’s predestinating activity resulting in justification in Christ, sanctification in Christ, and glorification by Christ.  Apart from the basic and repetitiously mentioned Gospel, nothing made any sense to Paul.  And so it must be for faithful youth ministries.  What are you doing if not this? Probably not Christian ministry.  My father oCoexist2nce told me—and he got it from someone else—if what you’re saying can be said by a good Muslim or Jew, you haven’t preached a Christian sermon.  Brothers: Preach Christ!  Let the Gospel offend!  Put on the big boy pants!

What does your youth ministry cover?  Is it repetitious on these fundamental doctrinal points or, like some mystery cult, have you left them to move on to what’s “really important” and really “wise” according to what’s in vogue?  There is no better way to work yourself into irrelevancy and to lose the students under your very temporary pastoral care than to leave your first love and diminish the amount you talk about the “first things” (1 Cor 15:1-58) in favor of contemporary, culturally-set talking points for whatever reason (perhaps you want to look “relevant” and “missional”?).  This is not to say you do not address major cultural issues or crises but, rather, they are placed within the framework of God’s redemption through Jesus and never the other way around.

#2: Historically Rooted
#3: Biblically Rich
#4: Rigorously Intellectual
#5: Repetitious in the Fundamentals of Doctrine

Parents have a hard enough time training and discipling their children.  We must be cautious that our ministry to youth as a Church family is faithful in these areas lest we undermine what parents are doing faithfully in their homes.  Parents, be cautious that the patterns of your home do not undermine these areas.  It is far too easy to do.

Next week, we give the 6th and 7th characteristics of faithful youth ministry.

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