The Problem

In the prevailing model of youth ministry, a young man steps into a local church to do the work everyone knows must be done, but no one wants to do – discipling those raucous teenagers. A few dedicated volunteers (or hovering parents) make themselves available, but the church hands the weight of discipleship over to the youth pastor. Unfortunately, this widely accepted model only propagates common shortcomings—in a sincere desire to help the next generation, we enable unbiblical parenting and negligence on the part of the local church. The current model has had ample time to prove its merit, yet SBC attendance plummets and the average age of congregants steadily increases.[1] It is time for change. Today’s youth thirst for discipleship, not gimmicks. In eternity past, God ordained the local church as the chosen vessel to quench that thirst.

The Solution

Paul provides a clear directive in Ephesians 4:11-13: “…equip the saints for the work of ministry…” Rather than attempting the work of discipleship alone, the youth pastor that desires deep roots and enduring fruitfulness for students must equip saints from all generations for this work. Despite the current model’s flaws, many have still experienced profound and eternal impact through it, of whom I am one. Individual stories do not validate a model of ministry; simultaneously, a flawed model does not invalidate an entire ministry. Instead of discarding youth ministry, we must return to biblical, intergenerational discipleship. Here are five suggestions to spearhead the remodel:

1. Teach youth to make disciples.

Is this not the Great Commission of the Church? "Go therefore and make disciples…" (Matt. 28:19). A heart for discipleship does not magically form when young believers turn eighteen. Before they graduate, students should be passionately pursuing Christ and effectively developing disciples. In an eternal sense, that is the metric that matters, not how many attended the lock-in dodge ball night (though successful outreach events are wonderful). Come alongside students in the work of evangelizing the lost and discipling newly converted peers and children of the congregation.

2. Equip parents for discipleship

This is the most critical task facing the youth pastor. Students are with him for an hour or two each week, give or take. For the other 166 hours, discipleship falls to the parents. This is the good design of God. Pastors—not just of youth—shoot themselves in the collective foot if they do not intentionally equip parents for the eternally important work of discipling children. "Proverbs 22:6 parents" need "1 Peter 5:1-3 elders" to instruct them. We must not assume parents know the scriptural mandate to disciple children, let alone how to fulfill it. Perhaps while volunteers lead youth small groups, the youth pastor may lead a study with parents. Preach it to them; implore them. If they are unbelievers, that is a wonderful evangelistic opportunity. Embrace it.

3. Cultivate intergenerational fellowship.

Yes, equip current parents of youth, but do not stop there. Previous generations of church members have seen God work through that phase of life. Without some encouragement, the youth may not want to spend free time with sweet, elderly Miss Addie, but they need to (Titus 2:3-8). She has seventy years of Christian living under her belt—fifty of those married to the ever cantankerous business meeting legend, Mr. Fred. She knows a thing or two about patience, and love, and loss, and God’s faithfulness. Preach it from the pulpit. Have an intergenerational luncheon. Set up a mentor system. Just do something. Cultivate and facilitate an environment where the older disciples the younger, and vice versa—yes, discipleship benefits both parties.

4. Do not isolate the youth from the body.

If discipleship occurs across generations, from the senior citizens down to the children, this is the only logical conclusion. I understand the pragmatic attraction of retreating to the youth room (or separate facility) and I recognize extenuating circumstances. But this approach fundamentally challenges the very foundation of what it means to be a local church. One of God’s clearest means of grace to His people is the regular gathering of the local body in one place, at one time.[2] We are imprudent, even foolish, to neglect that. Let them worship through the singing, praying, and preaching of the Word alongside their older brothers and sisters of the faith. If they never actually see the youth, how will the elderly say with the David, “O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (Ps. 71:18, emphasis mine).

5. Teach youth to serve

Teach them, model it for them, then turn them loose. Believe in them. Have confidence that God can use them. Give them a spot on the greeter rotation or allow them to help in the children’s ministry. Better yet, have them lead corporate prayer on occasion. 1 Timothy 4:12 is more than a nice slogan. Timothy was not a teen, but the principle still applies: age does not hinder believers from serving their local body well. As students serve the church alongside older saints, they will see her value and purpose. These strong roots are hard to sever. Additionally, this will create a compelling community[3] in the eyes of the world. Youth…serving? And joyfully? Behold the power of the Gospel! Parents of slothful teens will be intrigued, I promise.

So, what?           

Churches do not need to abandon youth ministry. Instead, they must embrace the biblical command to proclaim Gospel truth to the next generation. Strictly pragmatic programming is dangerous, but setting up formal systems to facilitate intergenerational discipleship is wise; more importantly, it is biblical. We have a responsibility to shift the paradigm. When someone says “youth ministry,” some may think of nothing more than games, camps, melodrama, and pizza. Let us labor to prove those presuppositions false—except for the part about pizza. That may always be true.

[1] Pipes, Carol.

[2] Leeman, Jonathan.

[3] Dever, Mark and Jamie Dunlop