If not youth ministry, then what?

mentoring up

A post from 2010 has been making the rounds again, and justifiably so because it deserves to be known. Entitled Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church, Kate Murphy reflects on her time in youth ministry and wonders “if we’re ministering them right out of the church.”

I think she makes a strong argument. Having a youth group that keeps youth completely isolated from the life of the larger church is a recipe for disaster. Youth may love their youth group without ever recognizing that they are part of the larger church. If they are never introduced into the larger workings of the church, or invited to be part of them, what is the church other than that place they go to to talk about stuff? And it’s good stuff, no doubt. But it’s all about “here’s what we want you to know so you can do the right things.”

Yes, I know I’m grossly caricaturizing youth ministry. But this post does raise the question, if youth ministry is killing the church, then what should we put in its place?

I think the time is ripe for a rethink of what youth ministry means.

To date, youth ministry has often meant “a special group where youth can go and be together with one another.” And there’s certainly a place for that. But youth are with one another most of the time in school and in their extracurricular activities. What the church has to offer that’s different is an opportunity to get out of their own age group. It’s still one of the few places out there where people of all ages meet together. Why not take advantage of that unique property so that youth ministry is all about interacting with adults and learning to navigate that world, both in the church and in society?

One of the things we do in Confirm not Conform is have the group select a service project and present it to the parish leadership (vestry, council, session) and get the church’s full support. In so doing, we want to both introduce youth into the way the church functions together in carrying out its mission – and to put the church leadership on notice that these are real full members of the church with gifts to offer.

In our interview with Andy Root, he talked about how “incredibly powerful” it was to have adults and youth come together to read the Bible, “to use confirmation as this time where we read the Biblical text, and read the Biblical text together, and not together as leader with adolescents, but together as a church community.”

All of this, I think, is based on a new understanding of youth ministry not as something we do for youth, but as a form of mutual ministry: youth and adults working together, each with something to offer the other. As many people have learned in any form of charitable endeavor, any “helping” that doesn’t come from a feeling of mutuality, an understanding that the person we are helping also has agency, voice, and gifts, will ultimately do more harm than good.

Earlier this week, I learned about a joint project with the AARP and 4H called Mentor Up which pairs teens with adults 50 and over to teach them how to navigate technology! The language used on the website actually made me smile; it’s the same kind of sad story we use when we talk about how youth need us. “Millions of people 50 and older are hurting,” it says. “These people are not strangers to you. They’re in your community. They could even be your parents and grandparents…As part of the younger generation you have what they need.”

It sounds like a terrific program, but doesn’t it make you see things in a new light to feel that youth pity us for our ignorance? Maybe we need to drop the attitude of pity and need and fear and instead reframe what we do together as a community of faith as an opportunity to gather for mutual learning and ministry, all of us able to love and serve one another.