Biblical Foundations for Youth Ministry (an excerpt)

22 Oct 2004
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Lausanne Occasional Paper 52: The 12/25 Challenge Reaching the Youth Generation which was published in connection with the 2004 Forum on World Evangelization held in Pattaya, Thailand. 

1. Biblical Precedent

Ministry to and with young people has enormous Biblical precedent.  Throughout the Bible we find young people used by God, including such prominent figures as Joseph, Josiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Mary, John Mark and Timothy.  God works in and through young people.  If we are to do what we see the Father doing, the church must make it a priority to draw youth into His Kingdom and train them up as disciples.

The Old Testament is clear in its admonishment to make sure that young people are taught the precepts of God.  God called Israel to teach their young to obey and revere the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).  Deuteronomy 6 indicates that great effort should be taken to ensure that the word of God is passed on to the next generation.  (see also Exodus 11, 13).  Psalms repetitively declares that God should be made known to future generations (Psalms 22:30, 33:11, 100:5, 102:12).  Joel 1:3 succinctly summarizes the mandate to pass God’s prophetic word on to younger generations: “Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”  We are to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).  God’s people are admonished: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth!” (Ecclesiastes 12:1)

In the New Testament, Jesus also emphasizes the importance of youth ministry.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels records Him calling the children to come to Him.  Jesus ministered to young people and with young people.  He was quite young during His earthly ministry!  Throughout His time on earth, Jesus contextualized his ministry to whomever He was approaching, including young people.  Paul followed suit, as he specialized his ministry in order to effectively communicate the gospel to the Gentiles: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  We must adopt the same missionary mindset as we seek to reach young people, so that future generations will know that “the Lord is good…and his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5).  A young minister is encouraged: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1Timothy 4:12)

2. Incarnational Theology

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the foundation for a theology of youth ministry.  Jesus set an example for us when He became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood (John 1:14 as stated in The Message).  Jesus set aside His divinity in order to enter a particular human culture.  He did not minister from afar, but took on the life and limitations of humanity in order to share the Good News of salvation with us in a way we could easily understand and grasp.  In Philippians 2:7, we see that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  By becoming incarnate in humanity, Jesus was the first real missionary.  Since youth culture is clearly distinct from adult culture, youth ministry is actually a missionary endeavour.  Youth workers, like all missionaries, must follow Jesus’ incarnational example by going to the world of young people and seeking to share the gospel message in a way that it can be easily understood and received.

3. Relational Method

The primary method of sharing the gospel with young people in a way that it can be easily received is through the development of personal relationships.  Thus, an incarnational theology of youth ministry leads naturally to a relational method of youth ministry.  Youth are hungry for friends and mentors who will affirm their value and worth and help them form their identity.  Youth ministry is not primarily about designing the most interesting and dynamic program or service.  It is about pouring one’s life into a young person, showing them the love of Christ through authentic personal relationships and helping those who respond to the gospel to reach out to their peers.  Jesus Himself used a relational method.  He did not train His disciples in a vacuum, but in the context of intentional and loving community.  He continues to do so with us, His followers, today.

4. Holistic Impact

Ministry to young people must also be holistic, as we see in Jesus’ own earthly ministry.  The gospel brings transformation in all areas of human need: emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual and social.  Jesus was very clear about the fact that His ministry was touch all areas of life when He cited Isaiah 61:1-2.  His mission was to bring good news to the poor, to comfort the desperate, to free the prisoners and to release the guilty (Luke 4).  In Jesus, God becomes man and meets the basic needs of human beings.  Just before Jesus goes back to His Father again, He turns this mission over to His disciples: “As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).  Jesus, the only whole and complete human being, sends us to minister to the whole humanity of young people.  Just as Jesus ministered to the needs of the whole person, youth ministry must address the needs of young people in every sphere of life.

5. Further Theological and Practical Reflection

We have seen in 2.1 that the Old Testament is clear in its admonishment to make sure that children are taught the precepts of God.  Did the Old Testament writers envision youth ministry as we do it today?  Probably not.  Yet the message is clear that God expects and demands that specific effort be made to make Him known to subsequent generations.   Our work today in specialized youth ministry is our effort to put this principle into practice so that future generations will know God, His truth and goodness and find redemption and healing in Him.  Evangelistic outreach to youth requires ministry and communication across (sub) cultural barriers.  It is apostolic mission.  Therefore, an appropriate theological guideline is found in the Incarnation.

God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  That basic statement is both a theological doctrine and a model for ministry.

Firstly, the incarnation took place in a particular culture.  Jesus was a Jewish carpenter, taking on the limitations of culture.

Secondly, crossing barriers, particularly cultural barriers, requires a willingness to empty ourselves and to die to ourselves.  Philippians 2 praises Jesus for His willingness to forsake glory for our salvation.  We are called to do no less for others.

Thirdly, death allows for the possibility of resurrection, with a new identity that is tied to God’s kingdom.  So, those of us called by God to reach the youth generation are, likewise, called to the youth culture.  We enter it, emptying ourselves.  We willingly die to ourselves for the sake of others in hope that through the process of incarnational ministry a new generation of Christ’s disciples will rise up.

6. Cultural Barriers of the Church over against the Youth Culture

In general, there are four cultural barriers facing the church in ministry with youth.

Firstly, there is a church versus unchurched barrier.  The vast majority of youth in the world are unchurched and do not readily understand or care about the church’s message.

Secondly, in the Western world there is a modern versus postmodern divide.  Much of the church continues to hold to formulations of doctrine that were a response to modern issues.  They served their time well.  Today’s youth has a postmodern sensibility and traditional ways of explaining the gospel message typically do not answer the questions that many youth have.

Thirdly, there is a technological gap.  The advent of computers and the internet have changed the way people communicate and think.  The church often lags behind.

Fourthly, there is an age or generational gap.  The result of this is a cultural divide.  We have a missiological task before us.  As with any other missional work, we must employ the forms of the culture in order to communicate the meaning of the gospel.

Thus reaching the youth generation means translating the message of the gospel into cultural forms that are understandable to youth.  We must be at the forefront with music and the arts.  We need to understand new ways of thinking and new ways of communicating.  The church cannot be afraid of or ignore the youth culture.  We must engage the culture.  To engage has a variety of meanings, including to attract, to bring into conflict, and to interlock.  The gospel unearths the truth that exists in a culture.  The gospel also identifies the sin of a culture.  To be understood, the gospel must be embodied in a culture.  When the gospel engages culture, the culture is transformed into what it was truly meant to be: a vehicle to communicate God’s.

7. A Vision of Renewal by Reaching the Youth Generation

It is our vision for the church to see that the effort to reach a generation for Jesus Christ is bigger than any one generation.  What we do today has implications for how future generations will be reached.  The history of the church reveals how certain generational waves change the church in some fashion, often bringing renewal.  We envision that reaching the youth generation will bring renewal in the following ways.

Firstly, there will be a renewal of community, a rediscovery of the relational dimension of the gospel.  Today’s youth can help us all move away from an overly privatized faith into a more communally centred soteriology.

Secondly, efforts to reach the youth generation have the potential to push the church to remarry spiritual concerns and social action.

Thirdly, the church must be marked by cultural engagement.  The church cannot be afraid of or ignore culture.  It must engage it.  One of the principle places the church can do this is in reaching youth.

The church needs to operate from an ecclesiology that is truly Biblically based, rather than one tied to any one particular traditional cultural form.  The church is called to a new way of functioning, to live out the “plausibility structure” of the gospel in order to provide a credible witness to the culture.  It must no longer abdicate its role in the public debate of ideas.  In order for the church to bring glory to God, there must be quality worship, fellowship and witness.

What does this mean in terms of evangelistically reaching young people?  It means living a worship that is real and relevant:  Real in that it expresses both joys and struggles, relevant in that it is done with culturally relevant music and art and does not rely merely on propositional communication.

Also, the fellowship of the church must underscore the relational side of salvation.

Youth need a place where they can be restored and reconciled to other people and to God.  They desire leadership that allows the freedom to exercise creativity and the opportunity to enter into committed mentoring relationships.

Finally, vital worship and fellowship motivate a compelling witness, a witness expressed in evangelism, service, and justice.  Youth want a witness that moves beyond propositional truth.  They need to know that Christianity works in both the societal and personal issues of life.