A Shaky Foundation
Several years into my career as a youth pastor I had a crisis of purpose. I loved what I was doing and believed developing people and programs to support teenagers in their faith journey was one of the highest callings on earth. However, when research revealed that about half of the kids who were faithful youth group attendees were walking away from church when they reached their twenties, youth ministry became the target of much criticism. Some critics concluded that youth ministry was actually the core of the problem. I was offended. I was also afraid the critics might be right. If there was even the slightest chance that our youth ministry model of discipling teens was actually causing young people to abandon faith communities, I wanted nothing to do with it. I wasn’t ready to submit my resignation and find another career, but I suddenly felt like the ministry principles and practices I believed in were not the firm foundation I once trusted. I needed to be reconvinced or I would need to move on.
Youth Ministry in the Bible
Searching for biblical truth to back up my belief that youth ministry holds a legitimate place in the church, I was immediately drawn to a passage I knew well. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing to NOT enter the promised land with the Israelites. His final words as the earthly leader of the nation of Israel are filled with warnings that the people of God must not forget who they are, where they have come from, and by Whose hand they have been delivered again and again. He repeatedly reminds them of their promise-fulfilling God as they prepare to take possession of the land which He had promised. Within Moses’ reminders and warnings come the words of the Great Commandment, followed by a call to pass on his words, and a plan to keep them from forgetting:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commands that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NIV
Clearly Moses wants the people to remember his words. He tells the Israelites to begin wearing the commands on their hands and heads, and he further instructs them to decorate the entryways to their homes with his words. He wants them to be certain subsequent generations remember the words as well. But does this constitute biblical support for youth ministry?
Mis-Preaching a Passage
My familiarity with these verses came from the fact that I had preached a sermon on this section of scripture in the past, and had heard others preach it as well. And the main point of those sermons was that this passage constitutes the basis for Godly Parenting 101. The instructions Moses gives to ensure the commands are passed on to “your children” sound like instructions for parents as the primary disciplers of their children. While this is not inaccurate, it is an incomplete understanding of what Moses is saying . Moses does not begin this section with the words “Hear, O Parents”, he begins with “Hear, O Israel”. This is not a message addressed specifically to parents. This is a message for the whole people of God. Every single member of the community of faith is implicated in this responsibility.
Youth Ministry Redefined
Seeing Deuteronomy 6 through this new lens convinced me that youth ministry does have a place in the church. If the responsibility of passing faith on to the next generation belongs to the whole community of faith, then our youth ministries must be built around that idea. I have redefined youth ministry this way: Youth Ministry exists to be a catalyst in the passing of faith from one generation to the next. This means that the discipleship of adolescents in our faith communities does not belong solely to the youth workers or parents. It belongs to the whole community. Therefore, youth ministry exists to create pathways for this faith transference.
This is called intergenerational ministry, and what it looks like lived out in our faith communities is the subject of my next post. Stay tuned.
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