Why you’re there

I am no longer willing to accept or employ any philosophy or strategy of local church youth ministry that doesn’t include an explicit, conscious effort to minister to people in their 20’s.  In my opinion it just doesn’t make sense.

But I’ve often asked myself why it happens?  How did we get to a place where we care deeply about students age 12-18 but in many ways show very little concern for them after high school?  I know that this is an exaggeration and that it is subjective to context and circumstance.  Still, stop and consider the amount of time, energy, resource, literature, training and initiative that has gone into youth ministry for the last half century.  Then compare that to what has gone into college and young adult ministry (specifically in the local church).  Ouch right?

The following is by no means exhaustive, but here are a couple of my thoughts on this:

Junior High and High School Students represent potential financial income and other benefits for the overall church.  They are a part of larger families and those families will invest time, talent and treasure if their children are cared for.  Obviously college students and young adults are also a part of families.  But the natural and culturally modeled transitions of the post high school and college age life stage foster circumstances where the family’s involvement is no longer contingent on the child’s.  Oh, and vice versa.  So college students and people in their 20’s generally represent a non-tithing, sometimes anti-involvement people group which requires a large investment from the church body (both financially and otherwise) with little to no immediate return.  In other words, CYA ministry a lot of hard work with no paycheck.

In addition, for some good reasons (thought not really good enough), the church is generally afraid of people in their 20’s.  I see it all the time when I try to get people to volunteer their time with young adults.  We see them as relativistic, flakey, opinionated, addicted to technology, disrespectful, financially needy etc… They have good qualities too (trust me), but generally speaking their high school kids in grown up bodies to whom we given grown up responsibilities.  However we must not forget a couple of things.  First. remember that we created the world that they grew up in.  The college students of this generation didn’t invent theological or moral relativism.  And most of them didn’t purchase their first iPod, their first video game system or their first laptop.  We, meaning the older generation, handed this stuff to them and didn’t realize until much later what the consequences would be.  I say this not to excuse their behavior, but to give us perspective.  Secondly I’d like to point out for clarity something that every youth pastor already knows: that there is a generational-culture gap which exists in the western world.  One that divides people and has infiltrated the church.  To oversimply for the sake of space: I’d say that youth ministry exists to address this divide.  All in all we must realize that many older Christians have a significant amount of apprehension about connecting with and ministering to this generation of young people.

There are other reasons which can and hopefully will be discussed.  However I’d like to switch gears at this point.  Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of presenting a seminar at the Bay Area Sunday School Convention (www.bassconvention.org) on how to develop a college and young adult ministry in the local church.  Last Friday I was actually able to share in two separate seminars and I was blown away.  Every time I do it I come away so encouraged by the people I meet who are struggling with the same issues that I am.  These are people who are standing in the gap between the older and younger generations in their church, advocating for a more biblical community.  I applaud them for their willingness to fail forward in this type of ministry and each year I am extremely grateful to have met them.

In light of both the above mentioned issues and the amazing people I met at BASS last Friday I’d like to remind us all of one thing:  This ministry is important to God.   You may be the only person (or group of people) in your church who is actually paying attention to this generation of young adults.  It’s not that the rest of your church is “evil”, but it may be that they’re short-sighted.  If anything they may just be scared, overwhelmed and/or un-equipped.  Either way you must continue to advocate for a fully integrated Body of Christ that is willing to address every generation.  Furthermore, remember that you are on the short list of adult christians that these young adults trust right now.  Make the most of that opportunity because the Holy Spirit will use you to bear fruit in their lives!

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6 thoughts on “Why you’re there

  1. My personal opinion is that there’s still a relative “newness” to the concept of college/young adult ministry that the church is largely ill-equipped to handle because of the cultural transition. When I was growing up, the church cultural ideal was largely that you graduated youth group, turned 18, and immediately fell into the category of men’s or women’s ministry. Coming into legal adulthood meant (at least in my admittedly tiny hometown church) that you sat in on church board meetings, had a vote as a member of the local church body, and participated in ministry as an adult, alongside the middle-aged and senior adults, and no longer as a kid. I believe the church has run this way for so long and the concept of college kids who are in their 20s who are still in a culture and a generation gap all their own is completely foreign. College/Young Adult ministry is today what youth ministry was back in the 80s and early 90s–still an uncharted territory that no one really knows how to address, so it simply is not addressed. Whether this is short-sighted or not is hard for me to say, but it’s entirely possible.

  2. Great observation about the generational-culture gap and how youth ministry is the current conduit being used to address it. Do you think that because it is not being done well, as in not creating meaningful mentoring connections in the attitude of “oh well that’s the high school pastor’s job, that then leads to this void of individuals willing to work with college age adults? I feel like my peer group was written off by the church I attended for specifically the reasons you mentioned above. We are already coming from a judging and marginalizing environment in our universities, we don’t need that from other areas. Do you think a way that the church could connect with college students is to involve them in more of an operational capacity in the organization? Say through ex officio positions on the elder board or intentionally directed service opportunities?

  3. Interesting. So are you saying that this process worked for the church your grew up in? Cause if it did…that’s awesome!

    I think you’re right that there is newness to this stuff in the church. in recent decades not only was this age group simpler (not simple, but less complex than it is now) but it was easier to rely on para-church ministries to handle the dirty work (Campus Crusade, Navigators etc).

    Thanks again for your thoughts Mark, I appreciate your thoughtful responses!

    • Yes! I think you’ve nailed some real issues…at least ones that I’ve observed and experienced. Though these are generalizations, I believe that the church has to admit these things to varying degrees. The church has broken itself down into silos and allowed the intergenerational work to be the responsibility of the a youth pastor and whatever “young and crazy” people who are willing to go with him/her. Hear the irony in this: the horrifying sterertype that all youth pastors try to debunk and challenge that only young people should work with young people!! Where does this logic come from? Not from the scriptures! At the expense of really upsetting some folks- I really think it comes from the Boomer generation. Their philosophy was never trust a person over 30. They have projected that philosophy back onto younger generations and it has, in conjunction with a bunch of other factors, had detrimental affects on how we live in community (or not live in community).

      I absolutely think that assimilation is one of the long term goals. I’m going to talk more about this at some other point, but I think assimilating young people “up” and older people “down” has significant potential to be both a fruitful process and produce a fruitful end result.

      Thanks bro!

    • Well, I believe it worked to an extent. The context of my home church doesn’t necessarily lend itself as an end-all example, because we were so small and only had a handful of students (that I know of) grow up through the youth group and stick around our church during the CYA years. But it worked well enough for me personally, and at least a couple of other students that went through youth group around the same time as I did.

      On the note of what you mentioned, I’m curious: what about those para-church ministries? How can we best incorporate their efforts into what we do? I’m still new to the process of seeing the kids I work with get ready to graduate move on, but my initial plan is to try and form relationships and connections with whatever InterVarsity (or Campus Crusade, etc) groups that work in the area where they plan to attend, and try to get them plugged in there. My wife felt that her I.V. group at Santa Cruz did a great job at working with students and transitioning them into church membership. Of course, there were also several churches there with excellent college ministries to back that up. So where should these para-churches come into play?

      • That’s a really good question. I don’t really have an answer, but here are some initial thoughts. I think that wherever possible, there should be a relationship between the church CYA ministry and the para church ministries. I’ve been blessed to be in relationship to a CCC staff person who has worked with college students in several different states for like 25 years. He has taught me so much about this age group and I’m very thankful for his leadership. I’ve also used resources from both Campus Crusade and Intervarsity that I found them extrememly helpful. All of these ministries have online stores that you can get resources from.

        But I also think this needs to be explored further. In terms of strategy and tactics, it seems that doing college ministry in the local church and doing it on a campus through a para church ministry are completely different. Your people group is similar (though possibly not the exact same) but your goals are very different. In a perfect world, we would have some grand view of how the para church ministries and the local church ministries work together as some sort of seamless thread of discipling young people. The world’s not perfect, but future dialogue between these groups may bear fruit in this direction.

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