For almost 17 years I taught the Youth class here at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church (MPBC) and for 2 years served as Associate Pastor with responsibility for all Youth and Children activities. However, as the years went along I had to stop and think and really take an honest and objective look at the results we were getting and had gotten over the past 17 years. In all honesty, I was disappointed in what I was seeing. I had also during that time become convinced we do not need more programs, more bells and whistles or more activities. I was seeing statistics put out by George Barna and Josh McDowell that showed we were losing our Christian young people by and large by the time they turned 20 years of age. Why? Well there are a myriad of reasons, but I became convinced we must raise the bar and integrate our young adults (teens) into the total life of the church.
The Lord began to reveal to me that in order to hold on to our young adults, we needed to concentrate our full, undivided attention on holding them responsible and accountable for their attitudes and behaviors. For sure, I knew some people wouldn’t understand. But on the other hand, I knew what the Lord was showing me in His Word regarding moving children to adulthood.
I sensed the Lord directing us to “raise the bar.” A truly Biblical and Christ-driven approach can and must form the core for a revolution of our youth and in my opinion any youth ministry today. And that core is this: the overall objective in youth work must be to lead teenagers to Christian maturity (1 Tim 4:12). If we are not leading them to mature Christian adulthood, we are spinning our wheels, spending a lot of money on activities and staff, but ultimately are failing to accomplish God’s objective for teens: maturity that leads to adulthood.
I will try to point out in the paragraphs to follow what we are doing here at MPBC. What I sincerely hope to detail is a process for leading teenagers to Christian maturity that involves at least four basic commitments on our part as a church.
1. Resist the temptation to give in, promote and push an “adolescent” approach to youth ministry.
I want to share some background at this point briefly. In my own life, I realized several years ago that something was really desperately wrong in how many of the young persons I had taught for their entire high school careers had dropped off the Christian scene by the time they were sophomores in college. I began to study and read the works of Doug Phillips of Vision Forum in San Antonio, Tx and Voddie Baucham and Dr. David Black (Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest , NC). In fact, I consider Dr. Black a dear friend and a mentor of mine. I have a deep respect for Dr. Black and his book The Myth of Adolescence really changed my understanding of youth ministry and raising my own four children. I loved the book so much, I purchased one for each family in our church that had a child 12 years old and older, up to the age of 18.
The book really details and defines what the Bible teaches about the stages of life. Did you know the Bible has nothing to say about an “adolescent” stage in life? In Scripture, there are babies, children and adults. Unfortunately in our society, adolescence has become a waiting period of leisure with few responsibilities and little or no meaningful contact with adults for our young people. This isolation from adults is one of the most harmful developments of adolescence and has provided a breeding ground for the rampant feeling of alienation among our youth today.
According to Dr. Black, the way you can tell that someone believes in an adolescent approach to youth ministry is by the programs they develop to segregate youth from adults. He goes on to say, “Most youth ministries have their own Sunday School, youth missions, youth small groups, youth worship, youth evangelism teams, youth choir, youth discipleship programs, youth retreats, and youth outings. Youth leaders that have swallowed the myth of adolescence assume that by isolating the youth into their own independent subgroup in the church they will be better able to instill in them Christian values. The truth is that this solution is worse than the original problem.”
As I indicated earlier, studies have shown that most teens leave the church and frankly begin to lose interest in church during the ninth through twelfth grades. This is because they have been “entertained” by their youth leaders, but nobody has ever integrated them into the real life of the church (which involves responsibility, not just fun and games). At MPBC, we have chosen to focus on helping young people make the transition from childhood into adulthood spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. We do not have a Youth Pastor, because we believe the Bible teaches that the ultimate responsibility for raising our children spiritually is that of the parent (Ephesians 6:1-4, Deut. 6:1-10, Hebrews 12:5-11). The church is available to come along side and help the family do this important work. The church helps integrate even young people who don’t have parents active in the church by “adopting” them into families within the church that can help mentor them (Titus 2) and thereby show them what a family structure should look like in our culture.
2. Integrate teens with adults in every typical church setting and activity.
This is a step that most churches are afraid to take. Why? Because the culture has split our children into “graded” categories in everything they do…from school, to teams and to the church. However, this step must not be overlooked! Why? Well, as one experienced youth pastor has written (Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry [Downers Grove: IVP, 1994] p. 49): “Teenagers will not learn the skills required of mature adults in a peer-centered youth Sunday-school class. They will not learn these skills by talking with their friends. The process occurs as the less mature repeatedly have opportunity to observe, dialogue and collaborate with the more mature.”
We have chosen to integrate our young adults into a Sunday School (Bible Study) class that is led by adults. This class is called a “Mentoring Class.” This model is taken from Scripture as Jesus modeled discipleship to His young Apostles (whom, scholars tell us were mostly teenagers other than Peter, who was married) and Paul with Timothy and Titus.
Youth can and should:
- attend “adult” Sunday school.
- read Scripture during the worship service.
- lead in prayer.
- help run the audio/visual equipment for services.
- usher and pass out bulletins.
- sing with the adult choir.
- help with teaching Sunday school.
- serve as greeters at church functions.
- sit on committees in the church.
- work in Vacation Bible School.
- volunteer to serve meals to shut-ins.
- prepare care packages for the needy.
- do door-to-door witnessing.
- go on missions trips with other adults.
- adopt a grandparent (an elderly person in the church).
- visit nursing homes.
- help with the church food pantry.
- plan and lead worship.
Our young adults do all the above and more at MPBC. The wonderful thing is the transformation we have seen in our young people. They have “ownership” now in what is going on. If a young person, or anyone for that matter, feels like they are making a difference and have a stake in what’s going on, they will be much less likely to abandon the church when they leave the church for college or work. We believe we must not deny young people this kind of involvement with adults. It’s my sincere belief if we do, we will be sending our teenagers into the world mentally, socially, and morally unprepared for the challenges of adulthood. Ultimately, if they relate only to their peers, they will remain trapped in immaturity. On the other hand, young people who have been fortified with significant adult relationships are consistently the ones who exhibit responsible behavior and who are able to resist involvement in negative behaviors such as rebellion, drug abuse, and promiscuity.
Thus, the most important foundation a youth ministry can have in its work with teens is providing them with opportunities for significant dialogue and relationships with mature Christian adults, which will lead to belonging, involvement and service. This is especially important for those teens who do not come from Christian homes and who therefore need a circle of adult Christians to model the Christian life for them. Again, we “adopt” youth that come to our church without parents into families that have a desire to mentor that young person while they’re at the church and “show them” what a family looks like Scripturally.
3. Reject the myth that healthy development among youth requires a strong break with their parents.
Although peers exercise some control over a teen’s choice of dress, music, and entertainment, only when parents are extremely negligent do peers exercise more control over the teen’s choice of beliefs and relational styles. It remains a fact that in the vast majority of cases parents remain the single most important influence in the development of a teen’s character and personality. A recent study showed that young people desire experiences with their parents (Journal of Research on Adolescence 1 ). Specifically, the study concluded that (1) equating the youth years with inevitable rebellion is inaccurate; (2) the predictable disintegration of parent-teen relationships is false; and (3) teens are more likely to support parental values than to be in conflict with them. This means that more of our programs in church need to be designed for the youth themselves to serve and lead while providing them with mature mentors.
To implement the ideas I’ve detailed above, we at MPBC have implemented a “Rite of Passage” process for our young people when they turn twelve. This program has been invaluable in letting our young people know what the expectations are of their parents, the church and most importantly the Lord God, via Scripture as they become young adults. Again, we do not have a “youth” pastor, because we don’t see this role depicted in Scripture. In fact, we believe, according to the Bible, there really should no longer be “youth pastors” but “pastors to families,” since their main strategy should be to assist parents in raising a new generation of champions for Christ. As parents, particularly fathers, are going to be held responsible by the Lord in how we raise our children and teach, admonish and train them in the ways of Christ. (Eph. 6:4)
An adult-centered youth ministry is not a program to be added to a church’s educational ministry plan. It is a foundational model with one primary goal: to equip all believers (youth included) to grow toward mature and responsible Christian adulthood. If this is your first priority, it will radically affect one’s philosophy of youth ministry. Instead of trying newer and newer gimmicks to get youth to attend our “programs,” and instead of trying harder and harder to make traditional programs work, we have focused our efforts on those programs that equip parents to nurture their children in the Christian faith and those that give teens the opportunity to be with mature adults.
4. Finally, note this model is not something “new,” but something “old” that comes from the Bible, the Holy Scriptures.
What I’m describing is not a “new” model or philosophy for youth ministry. It is simply a return to God’s design for the church as detailed in the Bible (Luke 2, Deut. 6, Heb. 12, Eph. 6, and the Proverbs). Jesus had no organizational chart or curriculum. His priority was to call his youthful disciples “to be with him” (Mark 3:14). Jesus’ ministry was relational, and ours should be the same. The Christian faith becomes real to teenagers when they see it lived out in real life situations. In short, an adult-centered youth ministry is not about creating special programming for young people. The goal is to provide them with the kind of foundational relationships with Christian adults that will lead to spiritual maturity. In so doing we seek especially to connect youth from non-traditional homes, (divorced, blended, etc.), with adult mentors. If our youth ministries are to become Biblical and have a meaningful impact, they must reject the traditional model of highly programmed activities and entertainment and instead give the central place to connecting young people to mature Christian adults. Why? Because if we don’t, we will continue to lose our young people to the culture as they leave our churches in droves in their 20’s.
We are seeing wonderful results from implementing the Scriptures in the model I’ve described. We are committed to strengthening families by keeping them together as much as possible. We don’t over-schedule so we can allow families time to truly be families during the week. We have found, regarding our teens, that when teenagers are treated with the respect and the significance due to young adults, and are channeled toward ministry and not the self-absorption of immaturity, they rise to the occasion and spiritually flourish. Our teens function in every possible position of service. We work very hard to provide activities that allow participation with adults and in family-oriented settings. The goal is NOT just to group the young adults together for just “play” or “entertainment” or that would reinforce to them that they have an identity separate from the rest of the adult community. It is not the belief of MPBC that God does not work in youth groups, but rather that He can accomplish the same ministry—and much, much more—when teens are elevated to their high calling within the general body of believers.
During their teen years, when young adults are told they are not needed by society, they have a special need to “belong” to a community. Thus, while waiting for “adult” status as defined by their culture, they need to have a sense of belonging to a group of people they respect and from whom they can receive recognition. We believe here at MPBC, if we, as adults make the church a community to which young people want to belong, we will be helping our teenagers move more smoothly into mature adulthood. Ultimately, the Body of Christ can be a significant factor in the moral and spiritual development of youth of any age. To God be the glory!