Youth Need the Church, and the Church Needs Youth

Editors’ Note: Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don’t always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry for their help in compiling this series. Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, will host their 2012 conference from August 9 to 11. Speakers Ray Ortlund, Timothy George, and Mary Willson will expound on the conference theme, “Adopted: The Beauty of Grace.”


The current generation of youth is an interesting one.

As I’ve worked with and studied about youth today, it seems safe to say that they are not members of the Enlightenment, nor do they hold the modern notion that Reason can lead us to all Truth that is just beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

And yet what do they as a generation believe?

Though they are postmodern chronologically, I believe it would also be wrong to say that they are postmodern. Unlike postmoderns, they are desperate for a grand story to make sense of the world around them. They want meaning. They are desperate for a true hope.

But hope is an elusive target in the world. Many of their parents have put their hope in the economy, politics, and the military strength of America. Their children, however, see a failing economy, political unrest, and an ongoing terrorist threat. The future doesn’t seem that rosy. So what’s left for them to hope in if they don’t have the future? The moment. And happiness is king of the moment.

Youth pursue happiness, but the means given by the world—shopping, entertainment, sex, social media—undermine the very endeavor. Pleasure is fleeting. Relations, often only surface deep, get messy quickly. Entertainment can’t provide lasting satisfaction. In the end, happiness in the world is little more than momentary escape from the realities of the world.

Desperately Searching

Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that many youth are restless, insecure, jaded, and desperately searching for meaning to explain all the hurt and suffering they see around them, meaning for their very existence. Sadly, many within the church offer nothing more substantive than the vaporous teachings of the world. In some churches, “youth group” has become synonymous with over-the-top games, entertainment, and shallow teaching. They are told, yes, life here on earth is a mess, but don’t worry, one day you’ll die and go to heaven. There things will be right. In the meantime, want to see how many marshmallows I can stick in my mouth?

Do we really believe the faith of our youth is so pointless that the best God has for them now is a temporary escape from the world on Wednesday night and Sunday morning? This sort of ministry just reinforces a belief in the meaninglessness of this life.

Where are meaning and hope found? In Jesus.

I am firmly convinced that what today’s youth need most is the gospel of Christ Jesus the Lord. He is the one in whom the fullness of God is found, and he’s the one in whom we are filled (Col 2:9-10). Moreover, he is the one who gives meaning to this life.

He didn’t come to escape the world but to redeem it. When you read the Gospels, you see the way in which Jesus and his kingdom brought redemption to this world by overcoming physical evil (emotional and physical sickness), metaphysical evil (Satan and the demons), and moral evil (sin).

And the amazing message of the gospel is that we are transferred into Jesus’ kingdom of redemption and the forgiveness of sin (Col 1:13-14), a kingdom we pray comes “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). It’s a kingdom of meaning for today that heals the broken and strengthens the tempted as they live in the world (but are not of the world).

This is why, then, Paul pleas for the early Christians in Colossae to “walk in [Jesus], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col 2:7).

But the assumption Paul makes is that all Christians—including young ones—have been taught this kingdom-bringing Jesus,the Messiah as presented in the Old and New Testaments. This is the Jesus in whom youth today can truly root their faith and be fed, grown, and established.

His People, the Church

Where is Jesus found? In the worship of his people, the church. As others have said, the way we come to know Jesus is through the means he gave us: Scripture, true Christian fellowship, the sacraments, and prayer. These are the practices that by faith renew their minds in such a way that enables youth to view and live in the world with purpose and meaning as followers of Jesus. These are the practices that by faith force youth from their technologically imposed isolation, discourage their entitlement, and lead them to a spirit of humility and repentance. These are the practices that by faith expose their dependence on Jesus and remind them of their need for grace.

And these are the practices that are to define our worship as the church. Certainly, some of these practices can take place in youth-only venues, but at its heart, these are full-body practices of the corporate church: young and old worshiping together.

I love youth ministry, I really do. But the thing is, we have to be sure that we don’t segregate the youth for our sake and theirs. They are part of the body of Christ too, and no part of the body can remain healthy if one of its members is cut off and put to the side. If we segregate the youth, not only do we lose all they have to teach us, but we also inadvertently teach them that the church is really only for adults—those who are married and have families of their own. And then we wonder why they don’t get involved in church as college students or young singles, when in reality, we’ve been telling them all along that the church isn’t yet for them.

My prayer is that as we minister to a generation starving for meaning, we won’t lose sight of the reality that what these youth need is Jesus, and that he is most fully offered within the community of the church, of which they are a vital part.


Also in the series on youth ministry:

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  • John Carpenter

    I’m not sure what, practically, he’s trying to say. By not segregating the youth does he mean never, (1) for any meeting, like the problematic “family integrated church movement” — that is, that we never have regular meetings targeted for the youth — or does he mean (2) totally, that we don’t completely separate them from the rest of the church so that they are always meeting in their own meetings? If the former (1) then I disagree; if the latter (2), I agree.

    • Steve

      Someone in the “problematic family integrated church movement” might say the very reason for this series of blog posts is the “problematic” whatever-way-your-church-does-youth-ministry where the kids are segregated. That practically seems to be what the author is saying.

  • Susan Raber

    I think this post is very clear. The functions of the church body should be experienced and implemented by the church body. Young people are as much a part of the church as adults.

    I am sure the author is not saying that youth should NEVER do anything special or apart from the main group of adults, but the problem is that in many churches, the dynamic is that kids are seldom if ever embraced into the congregation as a whole. That is an extreme as well. Just because it is the ‘normal, accepted’ extreme doesn’t make it any less inappropriate or damaging.

    • John Carpenter

      Hi Susan, If you’re interpretation is correct, then I agree with the article. That you have to interpret it for me shows that the article wasn’t clear. Personally, the only churches that I know of that don’t have a main service with the youth present, along with everyone else, are the “seeker-sensitive” mega-churches. I certainly don’t know “many” that are that way. As far as I can tell, there is not one church in our area that is that way. I think the strictly age-segregated churches are largely a straw man created by the “family-integrated church movement” to cover their familism.

      • Dave Wright

        John, I work for a mainline denomination in a region where youth ministry is strong and done well… but our youth pastors struggle against a tendency towards separatism. The natural tendency in my and many other mainline denominations is to relegate youth to a youth room, give them programs, and not really include them in the life of the congregation. They come out once a year for youth sunday. It is not just the seeker sensitive churches that separate youth from the larger congregation. I also spent ten years working for a traditional non-denom mega church that was far from seeker driven – and it was very very age segregated. I also worked for five years in a church that was very much integrated. We had great youth groups but teens participated in worship and were active in all aspects of the life of the church. So, having seen integration and separation, I would say the segregated church is far more common that you realize. It is not a straw man. Knowing Mark Howard, I can say that he is about integration but not an advocate for FIC.

    • Mark Howard

      Thanks Susan. I appreciate your clarifying summary of my point. I am in favor of youth-specific events and incorporate them into my mission with the youth at the church in which I work. My concern is twofold: 1. to keep Jesus central to all youth-specific ministry I do (through Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship and the sacraments), and 2. to see the youth embraced as active participants in corporate worship and the corporate life of the church (praise team, choir, mercy ministry, missions, etc.) serving and worshiping alongside adults as a regular part of their Christian discipleship. @John Carpenter – sorry if I was unclear in the original post…hope this helps.

  • Dave

    I’d like to hear more of the authors view of “church”.

    Just finished reading the book he quotes and do greatly appreciate the “means of grace” found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. We work hard to implement these into the ministry I’m a part of. On the same page, of the book he quotes, the author says that it’s the “Holy Spirit (who) applies the work of Christ, nourishes the Christian’s faith, and draws the believer into deeper communion with himself. These are the effects of the Spirit’s work. But the means by which he accomplishes these effects are holy ordinances…” ~ Brian Cosby

    I’m not sure segregation or non segregation is the issue as much as are we presenting redeeming work of Christ and praying that the Holy Spirit awakens dead hearts.

  • Melody

    Here are my problems or questions about these articles about youth…..

    1) What is the point of the statistics? Is it God that saves or a really good program that hits all the right points? Is it the churches fault or the families? Or could it be the heart of the individuals? Is it even possible to come up with something fool proof that will ‘save’ our young people?

    2) What kind of youth programs are you talking about? Get specific. Are you talking about the kinds that make a kid chose between church worship or going to his youth activity? Or are you talking about ALL kinds of youth programs?

    Is the problem that the programs don’t have enough gospel or that they are too fun and so church seems like a drag?

    Or is the problem that parents aren’t living the gospel at home but are hoping that the youth program will give the kids a dose of Jesus?

    What I have witnessed at my own church that has youth programs, lots of biblical teaching, leadership training, and small groups for more intensive training is this……Parents that will go to worship during the hour that their kids have a meeting because they don’t want to wait around. So someone in the family ends up missing worship rather than just going to early worship together and then being patient during the meeting.

    Or parents that don’t bother bringing their teens to Sunday worship because they go Wednesday nights and the kids won’t get up Sunday morning to go. What message does that send?

    Or parents that are involved in teaching at the church but only bring their kids if there is something going on that they are involved in at the same time. Once again an unwillingness on the part of the parent to show patience and just wait.

    Perhaps this is why parents are over-involved in their children’s sports. They can’t just slow down and interact with other human beings unless they are busy or being entertained. Even the parents that do manage to sit still and wait have their noses buried in their carry along technology – still being entertained.

    Maybe the problem isn’t the youth program. Maybe the problem is our culture and parents.

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  • David Axberg

    There are three areas of everyones life that need to be Gospel focused. Family, Church and Work/school. If anyone of these is not Gospel centered then the Gospel does not become visibly effective for the whole heart, the Gospel is what saves so even a bad program that reads the true scripture can still be the tool the Holy Spirit uses. But I like to say that there is a “more Better way” that teaches a student that the Gospel is powerful to save all areas of life. I like to think of my children as “children of promise” and know that the Holy Spirit is the one that saves them, but I have a responsibility to my Lover/Savior to till the soil for the seed to be planted. Maybe if all three areas would work together through the Holy Spirit, lives would change not just the youth but those of us who are older also. I have often found that the youth Pastors are doing a good job at teaching but the soil is so bad from years of bad school and family life. It is a bigger battle than just pointing at the Youth Program. Yes, if we stop giving the appearence that it is up to the church to win the souls of our children then our Pastor/elders can do there job of peaching/teaching the whole congregation with much prayer.

    Thanks good articals to make us think and dilogue.

  • Chris R

    These articles on youth ministry have been excellent the past few weeks. I think some of the questions raised by people above, while great questions, are missing a central part of the problem. We are not teaching our children to love the church.

    A few things about me: I am preparing to graduate college in about a week and a half. I come from a churched background, grew up in youth ministry, and have been involved in both a campus ministry and a church where I attend school. The youth ministry I grew up in was an excellent ministry that preached the gospel faithfully, but many of my friends were not as fortunate. As a result, I have seen almost every single one of the problems that has been mentioned in this series from a focus on legalism to apathy towards the church.

    These problems did not end with graduation from high school. While many campus ministries are much better about preaching the gospel on a weekly basis, they continue to allow and sometimes promote a low view of the institutional church. This should not be so. As much good as groups such as Campus Crusade, IV, and Young Life have done for the kingdom and for my generation, we have missed a large part of how God works. The benefit to a young person of being in a multi-generational church learning from people of all ages cannot be overstated. Some of the most profound growth in my life has come from time spent with men and women who are much older than me who the Spirit has used to speak into my life. I wish this for all of my peers.

    For youth ministers and para-church organizations the take away from all of this should be that the goal needs to be reaching youth for Christ and then funneling them into healthy churches where they can grow under the leadership of mature believers.

    For parents: Model good church membership to your children. If you have the time, volunteer with the youth. Invite youth over to your house. Love on them. Show them the gospel lived out. Speak into your children and their friends’ lives. Discipline them in godly ways.

    For church leadership, the take away should be that these members of your church are not a hindrance or a problem. They are not even just the “future of the church”. They are the church. Just as much as the oldest member of your congregation. Engage them. Interact with them every once in a while. Speak at their meetings a couple times a year. Show them that you value them and that you love them. Equip them to serve and push them to grow.

    Sorry for being long winded…

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  • Christian Cerna

    I think you are all forgetting one thing. No matter how theologically sound the church service is, no matter how godly the elders and deacons are, no matter how you structure the service- it will not make a difference in a person’s life, if they are not seeking Christ and his Word everyday of the week. 3 hours of Church a week and opening the Bible once on Sundays, cannot compete with 50 hours of television, internet, ungodly radio, etc. Add to that another 40 hours a week hanging out at school among ungodly friends and listening to unbelieving teachers, and you can see what an uphill battle we are facing.

    • Mark Howard

      @Christian Cerna. Exactly – the youth need to be directed towards the means of grace in their everyday life: scripture, prayer, remembering their baptism along with Christian fellowship. My hope is that youth ministry and the youth’s involvement in corporate church life is encouraging, training, and modeling the importance of these things for a life of abiding in Christ, dependent upon the Holy Spirit’s work in their life.

  • joe

    How can we expect youth to see the value in church when the church doesn’t value them?

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  • Mark

    This series of YM articles has this in the introduction: “… we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate.” Is this article the one exploring the ‘biblical mandate’? If not, which one is? Thanks.

  • Michelle

    Eventually the proof will be in the pudding. Time will show whose children will remain steadfast and faithful and more theologically grounded. As calvinists, we completely surrender our children to God’s sovereign election. As parents, we will steadfast and faithfully pray for their salvation and humble ourselves to doing things as God has ordained in His word and not cave in to cultural pressure. Perhaps this is an echo of what newbie homeschooling parents had to confront 20 years ago, tons of naysaying, but the results are undeniable. We aren’t sweating bullets about this. Continue the discussion, by all means, but using scripture might be beneficial instead of “practical” or historical arguements.

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